As promised, The Westport Country Playhouse delivered 'something worth talking about' Saturday night with its season opener “Into the Woods.” The Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical follows a cast of well-known fairy tale characters—Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood—on their journey to achieve their hearts' desires. As in real life, though, the path chosen to realize one's goal affects not only the outcome but also their values.
In keeping with its tradition of providing Fairfield County audiences with high-quality professional theater, this production of “Into the Woods” is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Using rich material from an iconic musical theater team, director Mark Lamos has added his own refreshing spin on the musical which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Produced in partnership with Baltimore's Centerstage, Lamos' vision allows the audience to visibly see the Narrator's hand in controlling the actions that ensue by placing a miniature replica of the set onstage. Acting as a puppeteer (or, some unseen Deity), Jeffry Denman, in the role of the narrator, convincingly manipulates small doll-like versions of the characters as the spotlight shines brightly on the actors. Lamos brilliantly gives a nod to the German Romantic movement that inspired the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales upon which the musical is based by its sets, costumes and make up.
Cinderella sets the story in motion as she wistfully sings, “I Wish...” As we know from the sanitized Disney version, she longs to go to the Ball and meet the Prince and, of course, live happily ever after. All of the characters want this. And, for the most part, their wishes are granted in Act I. Ah, but Act II demonstrates what happens when reality sets in.
Let's put it this way: no one lives happily ever after for long. Shortly after the curtain rises in Act II, everything onstage—characters' lives, sets and scenery become shambles. Intrinsic flaws are revealed and lessons are learned. As in the original German tales handed down through generations, the consequences are brutal, harsh and even fatal.
Make no mistake: the Playhouse's production entertains as much as it challenges its audiences. I repeat: that is the signature of our hometown theater. We can sit back in velvet cushioned seats in our exquisitely renovated theater Barn and enjoy a night out on the town. And, we can be drawn into the woods and, for three hours, be transported to a village in some faraway place. This is the place where royal leaders are more interested in chasing skirts than governing and women go to great lengths to become a mothers only to let their own passions and fears destroy them.
And, back to Cinderella—she finds the palace becomes more of a prison than her step-mother's home. This is a musical for adults and older children whose innocence won't be crushed, like Little Red Riding Hood. That said, though, I think some of the more complex themes will go over younger children's heads. If the prospect of giants in the sky is more exciting than nightmare-producing for your youngster, I say bring them because the outstanding performances alone make it a worthwhile theatrical experience.
The cast is stellar, with standouts by Lauren Kennedy as the Witch and Dana Steingold as Little Red Riding Hood. Danielle Ferland, a Stratford native, who plays the Baker's Wife in this production, originated the role of Little Red Riding Hood in the Broadway show.
She was joined onstage Sunday afternoon by her fellow cast members, Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien, who played the Baker's Wife and the Baker, in the 1987 production. Moderated by Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy, the trio spoke candidly about working with Stephen Sondheim during the show's development. Danielle said it was an amazing opportunity to revisit the show as an adult and a mother of young children.
In the audience for Sunday's matinee, Joanna and Chip said they were impressed with the Playhouse production. “It takes a Herculean feat of physical stamina to sing this show,” Joanna commented.
Chip discussed the thrill of having songs written especially for them by Sondheim. Although the actors chuckled as they recalled how often the second act was revised during its workshops. “Every other day we would get rewrites,” Chip said. He noted that Joanna was much more adept than he was at memorizing the new lines. Shrugging off the compliment, Joanna replied, “We knew we were part of something extraordinary.”
Do not miss this show. “Into the Woods” runs through May 26th and seats are still available. Take the journey.