As if pouring from the pages of a storybook, the fairy tale denizens of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods (★★★☆☆) emerge from every nook and threshold in the enchanted forest of Matthew Gardiner’s bustling Signature Theatre production.
Cinderella steps out of a fireplace, Jack pops out of a lacquered box, and Little Red Ridinghood comes skipping out of a wardrobe onto Lee Savage’s handsome set, a voluminous fairy tale cottage, beautifully decaying and seemingly invaded by forest vines and flora.
Inside and just beyond the house’s crumbling walls, Amanda Zieve’s meticulous lighting dapples through the leaves like sunlight, or floods in through the windows and overhead, defining pockets of space for further adventure.
Hatching the company’s 32nd Sondheim production, the magical elves and designers at Signature have created a transporting backdrop that music director Jon Kalbfleisch and his impressive 15-piece orchestra fill with the late maestro’s loping, soaring score.
Undoubtedly, the production looks and sounds great — and yet, that pure thrill of inhabiting the Grimm world of Sondheim and Lapine’s fertile imaginations feels fleeting. It comes and goes with stories and characters rather than sustaining us from beginning to end.
Jake Loewenthal and Erin Weaver offer a compelling Baker and Wife, a vital success, as the loving couple whose dear wish for a child of their own is bound to failure by a witch’s curse. Nova Y. Payton’s comically crotchety crone — sung beautifully, though not quite as compelling — sends the childless pair venturing into the woods on a quest to lift her curse.
A dark be-careful-what-you-wish-for journey through childlessness and childhood, parenthood and loss, the show weaves the Baker, his Wife, and the Witch into a tapestry of interconnected “I wish” stories.
Katie Mariko Murray’s sweet Cinderella seeks her purpose in a stirring performance of “Cinderella at the Grave.” Alex De Bard’s adorably fearless Red Ridinghood explores her loss of innocence in the cheeky “I Know Things Now.” De Bard’s chipper moppet bounds into the woods on her way to grandma’s house fully prepared for disappointment. “For all I know she’s already dead,” Red supposes, cheerfully unfazed.
Of course, somehow, by the end of the first act, nearly everyone sees their wishes granted in time for a second act where the reality after happily ever after comes crashing down like the foot of a giant.
For their Giant, Signature has enlisted Phylicia Rashad, once upon a time a replacement Witch in the musical’s original Broadway run, to voice the towering villain who terrorizes the forest in search of that pesky climber Jack (David Merino). Rashad’s booming vocal turn as the unseen Giant evokes as much character and atmosphere as many of the performances we do see.
Kudos to Vincent Kempski, who does a lot with his appearances in dual roles as the Wolf and as Cinderella’s “charming, not sincere” Prince. And Christopher Bloch consistently captures the show’s arch tone playing a Narrator whose very presence calls the act of storytelling into question.
The songs supply some answers, and countless questions, culminating in the beloved closer “Children Will Listen” — though Payton’s Witch hits higher heights in her lovely first-act number “Stay With Me.”
But it’s Loewenthal’s searing take on the Baker’s final “No More” that lingers into the night, his wondering “what even worse is still in store.” No more giants waging war, we wish, knowing we must be careful what we wish for.
Into the Woods runs through Jan. 29, 2023 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, with a Pride Night performance on Dec. 9. Tickets are $40 to $109. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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