Cherry blossoms and the perfumed air of a new spring pale in comparison to the enchantments awaiting indoors at CenterStage, home of a beautiful and liltingly fiendish production of the Sondheim-Lapine musical Into the Woods, a transplant from the Westport Country Playhouse directed by Mark Lamos, who expertly balances the melodic and the mischievous.
Mr. Lamos was influenced by E.T.A. Hoffmann and the unexpurgated tales of the Brothers Grimm (as was Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine) in his concept for this musical treatise on “what happens after happily ever after?” He emphasizes the story and the journey, as well as a fabled sense of play and make-believe. A Narrator (Jeffry Denman) is a Herr Drosselmeyer-type figure (fromThe Nutcracker), orchestrating the action from a miniature replica of the stage set containing elaborate paper dolls and moving scenery.
When the Narrator manipulates the paper doll characters, the onstage actors spring to life, as if roused from the limbo of a closed toy box or forgotten corner of the attic. This simple, charmed device underscores the storybook quality of the musical. But this is no Disneyfied, precious fairy-tale. Allen Moyer’s scenic design recalls the dusky, cross-hatched 19th century drawings and woodcuts of the original tales of the Brothers Grimm. The interplay between delicious darkness and lightheartedness also puts you in mind of another master, writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak.
Lighting designer Robert Weirzel bathes the company in buttery light, the better to see Candice Donnelly’s costumes, which resemble N.C. Wyeth illustrations rendered in fabric. You don’t know where to feast your eyes first—the lumpen and crooked gown worn by the Witch (Lauren Kennedy) accessorized with claw-like hands that project creepy shadow-puppet shapes on the backdrops, or Cinderella’s (Jenny Latimer) ballgown that floats around her like a gauzy cocoon, or the evil Stepmother’s (Alma Cuervo) get-up, a bilious green patterned dress that looks like an overdressed teacup topped by a towering bucket hat.
Everything is piquantly heightened—Little Red Ridinghood’s (Dana Steingold) cape is a bloodthirsty crimson, Rapunzel’s (Britney Coleman) dress an almost painful white, the military finery of the Princes (Nik Walker and Robert Lenzi) the bright, shiny reds and blues of freshly painted toys.
As captivating as the visuals are for Into the Woods, it is after all, a musical, and one of Mr. Sondheim’s most dastardly infectious. The lilting discordance of the music and the lyrics that wittily and prettily mock storybook language are like delicate earworms that burrow into your brain. Go ahead, just try to get the melody for Into the Woods out of your head.
The musical’s first act intertwines the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood, the Baker (Erik Liberman) and the Baker’s Wife (Danielle Ferland, who was the original Red Ridinghood in the Broadway production), as well as Jack (Justin Scott Brown)—of the beanstalk fame—and his Mother (Cheryl Stern).
Everyone gets what they wish for, from the Prince’s extolling the exquisite torture of pursuing young women just out of reach in “Agony,” sung with a perfect balance of brio and jeer by Mr. Walker and Mr. Lenzi, and a wonderfully snippy and outspoken Little Red Ridinghood triumphing over a famished Wolf (Mr. Walker, in a skillfully sleazy turn in “Hello Little Girl”) to Cinderella hemming and hawing over whether to allow herself to be caught and the Baker and his wife doing everything the Witch requests to reverse a curse and the winsomely dim Jack planting the magic beans and being transported to the rich realm of the giants—which Mr. Brown details in a wistful and pure rendition of “Giants in the Sky.
The curtain falls and everyone is radiantly happy. Then there’s the second act, which goes to a far gloomier place as the characters grapple with the reality of getting everything they ever wished and dreamed for. What happens then? These characters must leave the fairytale for the woods, where fear and uncertainty reign. By losing themselves in darkness, they find strengths and talents they never knew they had. By the time you get to the majestic melancholy of “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen,” you find yourself much like the characters—sadder but wiser, gently buoyed by the first stirrings of hope.
Into the Woods
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Mark Lamos
Produced by CenterStage and Westport County Playhouse
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission