Barrington Stage Company’s INTO THE WOODS is the most uniquely and coherently conceived and the most dramatically satisfying production of the 1987 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine classic I’d wish to see. It’s also ravishingly beautiful with a thoroughly original visual style and perfectly cast and acted with lyrics articulated with more clarity than I’ve heard before. It’s totally entrancing.
The psychology of parent-child relationships is usually the musical’s dominate theme but under the inspired direction of Joe Calarco, BSC’s INTO THE WOODS goes beyond a Brothers Grimm fairy tale mash-up to conjure a cautionary tale of morality and survival for our times. Calarco performs an amazing trick; he holds an insistent focus to Lapine’s text and also pivots to the essential fantasy in Lapine’s Freudian Fractured Fairy Tales. All the main characters - Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (as in the Beanstalk), Cinderella and Rapunzel - have a wish. Their tales are intertwined by the childless Baker and his Wife who bargain with The Witch, Rapunzel’s mother. If they bring The Witch four items, they will bear a child. So begins the journeys into the woods.
But these woods look different; gone are literal representations of trees, giant’s boots or towering beanstalks. Brian Prather’s scenic design is abstract - three large geometric open frames that introduce the characters, above which are suspended a crop of broken frames overgrown with gnarly wood. (Think Dali’s Cubist motifs.) The props aren’t just symbols of how beloved children’s stories - morals - have been “framed” traditionally and then get fractured by Lapine’s subversive take. The frames are key to the movement Calarco achieves; they get moved around to variously suggest labyrinthine thickets, Rapunzel’s turret room, or even to stage, in one of the show's most inventive flourishes, the Wolf's attack on bedridden Granny in puppet silhouette. The visual style in this WOODS borders on the surreal. Caralco’s talent lies in heightening the fantasy while preserving the magic.
Casting couldn’t be better. Most distinctive is club singer and actor Mykal Kilgore as The Witch (yes a male Witch - and Black, too). For most of Act 1, Kilgore is heavily disguised as a bent-over, decrepit, nasty gnome. When the Witch gets released from her curse, she morphs into a gorgeous, Amazonian queen, bedecked in a billowing, glimmering, white satin, gold-festooned gown. Kilgore’s Witch has both sass AND soul. He redefines the solo “Last Midnight”. (All due respect to Bernadette Peters, the original Witch, and Vanessa Williams, the revival's.) And when Kilgore leads the cast in the finale “Children Will Listen”, EVERYbody listens up.
The entire cast is uniformly excellent in acting and voice, but special kudos go to: Jonathan Raviv (direct from Broadway’s “The Band’s Visit”) and Mara Davi as the Baker and Wife; a petite Dorcas Leung who brings a quirky, bratty humor to Little Red Riding Hood; and Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton who doubles as a butch, predatory Wolf and then as an egotistical, dashing Prince. (The duet with younger Prince played by Pepe Nufiro is the best sung version of “Agony” I’ve heard.) Thom Sesma strikes exactly the right stance as Narrator. (I won’t reveal what other role he takes as you wouldn’t know it is he unless you read the program VERY carefully.)
Jen Caprio's brilliant, whimsical costumes of richly textured fabrics provide story-book iconography with modern twists. My favorites are the hot pink crinoline and chiffon ensembles of Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters with hot pink bouffants. The Wolf’s vaguely S&M, stylized version of black leather vest and chaps is pretty hot.
Act 1 concludes with everybody getting their wish, but given human nature, they remain unsatisfied, and go back into the woods in Act 2. The maxim “Be careful what you wish for” prevails. To revenge the slaying of the Giant by Jack, the Giantess attacks the villages and prince’s castle. (Matt Krauss’ sound design is superbly effective.) Many characters (no spoiler here) perish. The survivors acknowledge the wrongs, the mistakes, the lessons (dare we say morals) learned and how their fates are interconnected. From the dark of the wood, they sing - with perfect Sondheim lyrical wryness and mirth - “The light is getting dimmer, I think I see a glimmer… then out of the woods, happy ever after. ” And so we wish.
POSTSCRIPT July 4, 2019
A second viewing of Barrington Stage Company's production of INTO THE WOODS confirms what an exquisite marvel it is. Director Joe Calarco has created a fantasy world that entrances completely. His casting is uniformly excellent. There’s not a weak link in the cast; this INTO THE WOODS is the exemplar of the ensemble musical. The vocal dexterity of Mykal Kilgore as the Witch brings new definition to role; part gospel soloist, part Luther Vandross, but it’s all his own. The pairing of Jonathan Raviv and Mara Davi as The Baker and His Wife is perfect. In my opening night review, I hadn’t commented on Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting design; she uses a saturated illustrated children’s book palette for backdrop to Brian Panther’s brilliant, borderline surreal scenic design. Mayte Natalio’s choreography springs naturalistically from Calarco’s fluid stage movement. And that Sondheim score! An evening of theatre in the Berskshires doesn’t get better than this.
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