New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Into the Woods"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Connecticut

In a recent review of “Mame” we lauded composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, placing him among the greats of his Jewish-American colleagues—Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others.

But how could we have overlooked Stephen Sondheim, whose contributions to the modern musical are incalculable! Sondheim, in fact, has changed the tone and style of the genre, moving in a new direction and sounding the right note for our time.

So now, fortunately, we have the opportunity to right that wrong, as we review a current production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” The show is enjoying an excellent production at the Westport Country Playhouse (in Westport, Connecticut, a New York commuter town).

Since every Sondheim show is different in material, locale, and mood, it is difficult to make an overall evaluation. But one thing is certain: any Sondheim piece will have a bittersweet quality, stressing a darker side to life and happiness. And even though Sondheim focuses on Grimm’s fairy tales in “Into the Woods,” you can be sure that this piece will not end happily ever after.

What is the show about? Sondheim and book writer James Lapine have combined several fairy tales, including Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. They have added a conniving Witch and a Baker and his wife, who give focus to the story. The Baker and his wife long for a child, but have been cursed by the Witch. Only by entering the woods to gain four items demanded by the Witch can they lift the curse. There in the woods they encounter the other fairy tale characters, each of whom seeks a different goal.

The metaphor of the woods (where people grow in self-awareness and maturity) has interested other writers, including Shakespeare (who uses it to good effect in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”). This time around “Into the Woods” also has a happy ending—but only at the end of the first act. At the matinee we attended, some theatergoers actually left, thinking the show was over. Wrong! The second act moves on, not only into the woods, but into darker, dangerous—and clearly Sondheim--territory. The Baker and his wife are less than thrilled with the new baby (who takes over their lives), Red Riding Hood has grown cynical, and Cinderella’s marriage is less than idyllic. Furthermore, every one is threatened by Jack’s giant, who comes to earth to wreak havoc.

But let’s not give away the denouement, except to say that this particular “Into the Woods” is in excellent hands. The fine cast brings the cut-out characters to life---particularly Dana Steingold as Little Red Ridinghood. It is a tricky business to stand out among excellent peers, but Steingold is a memorable, distinctive Ridinghood. And Justin Scott Brown’s Jack stands out as both oafish and sweetly innocent. But Lauren Kennedy as the Witch and Danielle Ferland as the Baker’s Wife are also right on target. These and others of the 15-member cast create a beautiful ensemble under Mark Lamos’ impeccable direction.

In short, it’s time to head for the woods and meet all the fairy-tale characters of our childhood!

--Irene Backalenick
May 18, 2012

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