Fairy tales intersect in “Into the Woods”
Into the Woods, playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington and directed and choreographed by Mathew Gardiner, is an excellent production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Running through January 29, 2023, it brings together four fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, intertwining them in clever ways.
Act I presents more-or-less traditional renderings of these fairy tales, including some of the “grim” elements from the original Brothers Grimm tales (the source of three out of the four stories). These include the horrific blinding of Rapunzel’s prince and the mutilation of the feet and eyes of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters.
Act II then explores how the fairy tales might move forward beyond the traditional “happily ever after” ending. Will Cinderella’s life as a princess run smoothly? Will Jack be punished for stealing the hen that lays the golden eggs and for killing the giant? This musical explores whether fairy tales really end so happily after all.
Set in an abandoned nursery
A striking feature of this production is the stage set and its props. Instead of representing the woods, the reimagined setting is, according to Signature’s informative program notes,
… set in an abandoned Victorian nursery. Once it was a safe cocoon where a nurturing parent read fairy tales to a young child before tucking them in at night. Now, all that is left are the ruins of the one-time home with swiftly growing weeds and broken treasures. However, the words once shared from those beloved stories hang in the air like ghostly apparitions from long ago — then our Narrator stumbles upon this forgotten world and awakens the stories. And we begin anew, once upon a time…
Signature Theatre’s splendid production of Into the Woods is enhanced by a 15-piece orchestra conducted superbly by Jon Kalbfleish.
Lighting is used to great effect in the production, as when the stage is lit in red in the confrontation between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. The special effects used in the “Last Midnight” sequence are also impressive.
Strong comedic actors
The actors and actresses sing magnificently and are gifted in comedic timing, popping in and out, dashing across the stage and, of course, “into the woods.”
Maria Rizzo’s performance is particularly strong. While she usually plays Cinderella’s stepmother in the production, on a recent evening she played the witch, singing and presenting the delightfully terrifying as well as comic sides of the character.
Rizzo created a rare sense of empathy for the witch in her poignant song to Rapunzel (the beautifully voiced Simone Brown) entitled “Stay with Me.”
The Narrator/Mysterious Man is played by Christopher Bloch, who maintained a masterful presence throughout the play. Bloch’s role is especially important in this production, as it is he who finds the book of fairy tales in the dilapidated nursery.
Humor is provided by the two comically pompous princes — one smitten with Rapunzel (Paul Scanlon) and one in pursuit of Cinderella (Vincent Kempski). The latter also does a wonderful turn as Little Red Riding Hood’s nemesis the Wolf, singing a traditional-style Broadway showtune, “Hello, Little Girl,” with panache.
Other excellent performances include Katie Mariko Murray as Cinderella, David Merino as Jack, Erin Weaver as the Baker’s Wife, and Jack Loewenthal as the Baker. Phylicia Rashad, by way of recording, provides an excellent Voice of the Giant’s Wife.
Violence, volume too intense for young children
In this holiday season in which parents will be searching for options and activities for children and grandchildren, the question arises whether this is good entertainment for the little ones.
While they will naturally be familiar with many of these stories, the intensity of this production of Into the Woods might not make it a good choice for young children. There are a number of violent scenes in the show, including one which caused the adult audience to gasp.
The scenes with the Wife of the Giant’s booming voice also include effects in which the whole theater vibrates, providing an experience that may be too intense for the very young.
All in all, however, this is fabulous entertainment, succeeding in engaging the audience with well-known stories, but presenting these stories anew. The show introduces audiences to the original, often much rougher, versions of the Grimm fairy tales that are usually softened for today’s children.
This version allows the audience to ponder the haunting ethical meaning of these tales long after the show, with its wonderful music and performances, has ended.
Into the Woods runs until Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, located in the Village of Shirlington at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Virginia.
Performances include weekend matinees at 2 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.; and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m.
Ticket prices range from $30 to $109, and some performances require the audience to wear masks. For tickets, visit sigtheatre.org or call the box office at (703) 820-9771.