I understand why Into the Woods has become a modern classic. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1987, Into the Woods has been recorded for television broadcast, toured, had several subsequent major productions in London and New York, been licensed for production by tens of thousands of high schools and community theatres, and was finally transformed into a star-filled 2014 feature film starring Meryl Streep. The show has a terrific score with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, an unpredictable but intriguing book by James Lapine, and requires a large cast of talented performers to pull off; Dare to Defy Productions presents their Into the Woods for just one weekend at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, paying justice to the material with distinct qualities that make it worth seeing even if one has already seen dozens of productions of the show in the past.
Into the Woods tells of famous storybook and fairy tale characters inhabiting a land together and how their lives change in strange and new ways once their paths cross. There is a witch, a baker and his wife, Jack and his beanstalk, Cinderella and her family, Rapunzel, and Little Red Ridinghood; they all have desires and lives that are derailed by wolves, giants, and circumstances involving death and infidelity. Even though the story meanders quite a bit in the second act and comes off as a little preachy (must so many songs in one show have some kind of moral message?), the score includes such classics as “Children Will Listen,” “Stay With Me,” “No One is Alone,” “Last Midnight,” and “Giants in the Sky,” all songs forever to be performed in auditions by budding performers. This production is fortunate to have John Benjamin directing and conducting a talented team of musicians that bring the score to life with the kind of brisk tempo the material requires.
A notable surprise is the song “Our Little World”; it was written for the London production but is not always performed. It was in the 2002 Broadway revival that I saw with Vanessa Williams as The Witch, but it was not in the film. Though listed in the program erroneously as “Rapunzel,” the song gives The Witch (and especially Rapunzel) another moment to shine and examine the complexities of their relationship. I had forgotten about the song’s existence until it appeared like a gift in this production.
Director Mathys Herbert and set designer Ray Zupp (he also plays The Baker to great effect with a clear voice and good diction) have transformed this play by using the theatre as its own setting, creating a kind of “found theatre” approach by employing so many types of media and backstage equipment in this production. No attempt has been made to recreate the woods in the story, the stage appearing to be a combination of scenic elements from various prior productions with suitcases, trunks and such items as a Victrola all around the set; it all looks more like Follies than Into the Woods, but I liked it. A rolling ladder with a platform at the top represents the tree where Cinderella’s mother is buried; an overhead projector is used to project an image of the wolf on a screen for the baker to slash through and rescue Little Red Ridinghood and her grandmother; animated silhouettes represent a large eye of the female giant to great effect. The mix match of design extends to the characters as well; the stepmother (Amy Askins, as svelte and statuesque as any runway model) is dressed in a sparkling dress as if she walked out of “Real Housewives of New York,” while Cinderella’s father is a puppet that looks a lot like one from Avenue Q, and Milky White is a puppet controlled in plain sight a la War Horse (though curiously without legs, appearing to float on udders). It’s all terribly inventive and fresh, and bravo to Herbert and Zupp in pulling it off, with great assistance via the atmospheric lighting by Sammy Jelinek, puppet builder Danielle Robertson, and costume designer Carolyn McDermott.
The cast is uniformly good, though there were some notable standouts; Natalie Sanders is a wistful and longing Cinderella, with a thrilling voice; Evan Benjamin is a buoyant Jack, with athletic movement akin to an older Billy Elliot and a sweet innocence that is charming; Kelsey Hopkins brings humor to The Baker’s Wife more than I’ve seen before, though when she lets her hair down (literally and figuratively) she is dramatically effecting (her performance of “Maybe They’re Really Magic,” a great song with clever lyrics that was not in the film version, is precise and performed with exactly the right tone); Jackie Darnell has a splendidly operatic voice as Rapunzel, and projects more than just the sad victim as the role is often portrayed; Tori Kocher reinvents Little Red Ridinghood as a physically developed, precocious vixen, loud and fierce; Kocher is a great foil for The Wolf, played by Bobby Mitchum, who is also Cinderella’s Prince, classically handsome and unafraid to poke fun at that fact; and last but not least is Mimi Klipstine as The Witch, wry and enjoyably abrasive, her performance of “Last Midnight” particularly enjoyable.
I can’t say I was a fan of the obtrusive masks worn by The Wolf and The Witch (before her transformation); they were quite stylized and well-executed but covered too much of the performers’ faces and were set off of their heads in a way that cast shadows with the lighting that often hid their mouths. Still, that is a relatively minor criticism in a production so striking and original. It’s a shame that it gets to haunt the classic Victoria Theatre for only three performances, only two left later today at the time of this writing. This Into the Woods dispenses with trying to cater to the kiddies, feeling delightfully more adult though still appropriate for the middle school crowd. Even if you’ve seen it before (and if you’re reading this, you probably have), you really should catch Dare to Defy’s production of Into the Woods before it’s gone.
***/ out of ****
Into the Woods continues through to September 5th in the Victoria Theatre at 138 North Main Street in Dayton (a little over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/