Into the Woods
Book by James Lapine
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Joe Calarco
Barrington Stage Company’s “Into the Woods” is the most uniquely and coherently conceived and the most dramatically satisfying production of the 1982 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 dominant 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 with that of 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 begin 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 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 or 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. Calarco’s talent lies in heightening the fantasy while preserving the magic.
The 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 costumed 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 of the revival.) 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 an egotistical, dashing Prince. (The duet with the younger Prince, played by Pepe Nufrio, 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 storybook iconography with modern twists; my favorites are the hot pink crinoline and chiffon ensembles of Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters with hot pink bouffants. And 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 village and prince’s castle. (Matt Kraus’ 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 intone, 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.
Into the Woods plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Main Stage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Saturday, July 13. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or go to barringtonstageco.org.