What happens after “happily ever after”? This is the question that drives “Into the Woods,” directed by Jordan A. Reddout ’10 and playing on the Loeb Mainstage through May 1. In Stephen Sondheim’s retelling of several classic fairy tales, Jack (of ‘Beanstalk’ fame), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella all find themselves wandering in the same dark woods. Tying these various stories together is that of the Baker and his Wife, who search for the four items that will lift a curse that has been cast on them: “The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold.” Sondheim’s play is in itself alive with magic and mystery, but what is most enchanting about this production is the incredible energy that its cast brings to the stage.
In the opening number, “Prologue: Into the Woods,” the fairy tales inhabit separate areas downstage, in front of a flat, black backdrop. It is only once they venture into the woods that the characters’ paths begin to cross and the familiar stories become complicated. The stage, too, becomes more elaborate, as the backdrop is lifted to reveal the set, stunningly designed by Beth G. Shields ’10. The trees are stylized to appear textured, ancient, and gnarled, appropriately evoking the atmosphere of a supernatural forest. Reddout, in her direction, makes excellent use of this space. One tree doubles as Rapunzel’s tower; another becomes a vehicle for a benevolent apparition who resides at the grave of Cinderella’s mother.
With its spirits and character transformations, giants and magic beans, it would be an understatement to call “Into the Woods” a technically complicated play. Despite being interrupted with a few sound-system hiccups, this production’s technical realization of the show is subtle, but deliberate and creative. From the booming voice of the giantess to the smoke that appears alongside the spells of the Witch, the production effectively establishes the magical world of the woods without distracting from the vocal work and acting of the remarkable cast.
“Into the Woods” is necessarily an ensemble effort and, impressively, there is not a single weak link in this production. Samuel R. Schoenberg ’13 and Christine K. L. Bendorf ’10 are paired well as the Baker and his Wife, and the subtle evolution of their relationship over the course of the play forms a solid center for the many intertwining stories. A Sondheim veteran, Bendorf (who also acted as Johanna in 2008’s Mainstage production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”) creates a character that is equal parts practical and provocative. While maintaining her character’s witty charm, she effectively poses the moral questions of the play, at one point singing, “If the end is right, it justifies the beans!”
The Witch, whose curse the Baker and his Wife are trying to undo, undergoes a more dramatic physical and emotional transformation. Her role is also perhaps the most vocally taxing, a responsibility which Megan L. Amram ’10 pulls off with ease. Amram is by turns menacing, sympathetic, and hysterical as she belts, croons, and chants her way through the woods.
Some of the show’s most humorous moments reside with the antics of Gus T. Hickey ’11 and Elliott J. Rosenbaum ’12, who play the two charming but philandering princes. As a duo, they are masters of comic timing and innuendo. Hickey also takes on the role of the Wolf, who pursues Little Red Riding Hood with a relish that echoes the hunt the princes engage in as they chase after Cinderella and Rapunzel.
The princesses, similarly, are not the naïve damsels in distress familiar from Disney home movies. Cinderella, played by Samara R. Oster ’13, ultimately convinces the Baker to look beyond the woods and his insecurities, in a scene that speaks to her strength of character. And although this Cinderella can communicate with birds—and sings just as sweetly—her talent at one point draws a disbelieving quip from the precocious, ferocious, and hilarious Little Red Riding Hood (Maya S. Sugarman ’12).
Jack—played by Patrick J. Wicker ’13—is an appropriate foil for Little Red Riding Hood. Where she is adamantly inquisitive and at times even bloodthirsty, Jack is innocent to the point of utter foolishness. It is Jack’s encounter with the beanstalk that precipitates the tumultuous events of the second act. After “Ever After,” the number that closes the first act, the plot takes a turn for the darker.
“No one can prepare you for the world,” the Witch laments as the kingdom falls apart and the characters become more and more lost in their wanderings through the woods. But while the lives of the characters deteriorate, the cast’s performance only becomes stronger. They adeptly relate how their characters come to terms with a world where innocence, once lost, cannot be retrieved; where powers that are given up cannot be restored; and where there is no “happily ever after”—but, at least, there is some semblance of reality.
—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at email@example.com.