The way is clear, the light is good and the singing, acting and comedy in Lyric Stage’s to-the-hilt production of Into the Woods are absolutely enchanting. From the frantic overlapping lyrics of the opening prologue to the sweet, soaring poetry of “No One Is Alone,” the hopeful ballad at the end of the second act, the 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine gets the labor-of-love treatment by director Harry Parker and a huge cast of top local professionals.
Sondheim fans who’ve never felt the full-on impact of this complex, sung-through musical theater epic should revel in the mighty wallop of Lyric Stage’s. Other recent productions of Into the Woods have been such disappointments. The dour, green-tinged Disney movie adaptation in 2014 was a soulless fever dream. The stripped-down production Fiasco Theater put on in New York City earlier this year was monastic in its lack of frills — just 11 actors, doubling in lots of parts, a few sticks of furniture and two pianos.
Lyric’s Into the Woods heaves with frills. There are 30 musicians in conductor Jay Dias’ pit to play the show’s original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Deep layers of storybook-style scenery by Paul Wonsek (used first by Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera) hint at where the wild things are within. Wending their way out of avenues of twisted trees and drooping vines are 19 singer-actors draped in bright plaids, sassy brocades and tufts of fur designed by Nancy Missimi and coordinated here by Drenda Lewis.
The show is a near-operatic retelling of fairy tales, taking familiar names and plot lines from children’s lit and shuffling them toward surprising ends. The first number introduces the main characters and their heart’s desires. Cinderella (Mary McElree) yearns to go to the royal festival, but is stymied by her stepmother (Lucia Welch) and sneering step-sisters (Danielle Estes, Daron Cockerell). Next door (scenery-wise) are the Baker (Andy Baldwin) and his wife (Mary Gilbreath Grim), who wish to have a baby but can’t because of a witch’s curse. A white cow is all that stands between poor dim-witted Jack (Kyle Montgomery), his mother (Angela Davis) and certain starvation, but Jack is reluctant to sell his beloved pet. If only they were rich...
Others from the canon of the Brothers Grimm appear throughout. Little Red Riding Hood (Amy Button, with a killer voice and menacing way of skipping across the stage) gobbles her basket of sweets on the way to granny’s cottage. She’s lured off the path by a seductive wolf (growl-sexy Christopher J. Deaton) whose aside sung to the audience is, “There’s no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.” How Red escapes being digested by the fuzzy menace is one of the show’s first cute visual tricks.
There must always be a witch, and this show’s crone, played by power-belter Catherine Carpenter Cox, has locked her golden-haired daughter Rapunzel (Kelly Silverthorn) in a tower rather than allow her any independence. Rapunzel is loved from afar by one of two charming princes (Anthony Fortino and Deaton again) who team up to sing the overwrought and hilarious duet “Agony” when their happily-ever-after marriages turn sour.
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The first half of Into the Woods plays on the themes of common childhood wishes: to find love, to please parents, to have money without effort. In the second act, Sondheim and Lapine, devious masters of dark musical comedy, flip the script to swerve into the psyches of characters who are, after all, prototypes of abusers and the abused. Cinderella isn’t happy in the palace and seeks to escape. The Baker must face tragedy to find joy. Meek Jack, taken in by the magic bean ruse and missing his cow-pal, has to vanquish a giant to realize he’s a grown-up. Rapunzel fights for her freedom. Little Red, slayer of wolves, becomes a feminist crusader. Death, disappointment, disaster. All the nasty stuff of adulthood.
To lighten the loaded messages, director Parker has laid on more comedy strokes, turning his Into the Woods into A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Spamalot. Parker has the princes leaping on and off the stage like haughty stags, with the Steward (Seth Womack) prancing ahead of them like a show pony. Baldwin, always bringing the snazz as a physically silly actor, tempers his clowning as the Baker with fine singing tinged with touching melancholy, but he’s still crackers-funny when he needs to be. Davis and Montgomery, as Jack’s Mother and Jack, time their bits to the split second, not easy when working around a plywood “cow” on wheeled hooves. Stepsisters, big bad wolf, Rapunzel’s hair — all exaggerated to cartoonish extremes.
Quickening the comedy works, but the decision to slow down Sondheim’s score and tongue-twisting lyrics is this production’s only drawback. The words are easier to discern at the more deliberate tempo, but the run time stretches to a long three hours. Laughs diminish exponentially every minute closer to midnight.
Still it is nice to hear Sondheim’s puns and alliterations expertly enunciated for once. Cox’s witch, given some of the show’s biggest songs, tosses up this word salad perfectly: “Cause I caught him in the autumn in my garden one night! He was robbing me, raping me, rooting through my rutabaga, raiding my arugula and ripping up the rampion (My champion!)” Whew.
With so many Broadway shows and their tours going for minimalism now, a lavish Into the Woods like Lyric Stage’s is a treat. Big cast, big voices, big orchestra, big scenery. Big fun, too, even at marathon length. Consider it a joyous throwback to how American musicals used to look and sound once upon a time.