Saturday, September 07, 2019

No One Is Alone: In the Round at Writers, 'Into the Woods' Makes for an Enchanted Evening -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Woods
Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru September 29

In terms of artistic appreciation, I think I've greatly expanded my horizons in the 21st century, across many idioms, genres and creators.

But I don't think there is any artist who has freshly come to mean more to me in this millennium than Stephen Sondheim.

Certainly, this dovetails with a widespread, voluminous embrace of musical theater that--after a childhood introduction gone latent--emerged around the turn of the century.

And though I love the work of many esteemed composers & lyricists--Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lin-Manuel Miranda, etc., etc.--I believe Sondheim is the greatest ever.

Generally he writes both music & lyrics, although early on--with West Side Story and Gypsy--he handled just the lyrics. And with universal insights that go beyond what anyone else has consistently brought to the genre, I'm comfortable with dubbing the man a genius, who has appreciably added not only to my fandom of musicals, but my everyday outlook.

In the 21st century--but not really before save for a high school production of Sweeney Todd--I've seen roughly 60 productions of 16 Sondheim musicals, plus a number of revues and tribute concerts.

From local park districts to Broadway, a great number of directors have been responsible for these productions, but most importantly has been Gary Griffin.

At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater since 2001, Griffin has directed eight stellar productions of Sondheim works--Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George (twice), A Little Night Music, Passion, Follies, Gypsy and Road Show--and I've seen and loved all of them.

So I was thrilled to note that Griffin is helming Into the Woods at Glencoe's Writers Theatre, which in 2016 staged a sublime rendition of yet another Sondheim show, Company (directed by William Brown, not Griffin).

And I'm pleased to report that this version of the maestro's brilliant concoction--with writer James Lapine--of fractured fairy tales is as good as I could have hoped.

In full disclosure, still a bit jet-legged after a trip to Japan, my synapses weren't fully firing during parts of Act I, but I nonetheless soaked in superlative singing as Cinderella (Ximone Rose), the Baker (Michael Mahler), his wife (Brianna Borger), Jack of beanstalk fame (Ben Barker) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godinez) headed into the woods.

Writers' artistic director Michael Halberstam serves as the show's narrator, while Bethany Thomas plays a witch that helps drive the action.

Also on hand are Jack's mom (McKinley Carter) and beloved cow (wonderfully embodied by Mary Poole), as well as as Cinderella's mother (Harriet Nzinga Plumpp), stepmother (Kelli Harrington), step-sisters (Molly Hernandez and Nicole Armold), Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole), a couple of charming princes (Alex Benoit, Ryan McBride), a mysterious man (William Brown) and a wolf (Matt Edmonds).

In his remarkable score, Sondheim mines universal truths about childhood discovery via exploration ("I Know Things Now," "Giants in the Sky"), collaboration among husband & wife ("It Takes Two"), unrequited love ("Agony"), the desire of a parent to keep a child sheltered ("Stay With Me"), the realities of lust even if taboo ("Moments in the Woods"), choices having consequences and how everyone is interconnected ("No One is Alone") and more.

I pretty much love all of the songs of Into the Woods--including the long, self-titled prologue--and with terrific vocalists and a fine trio of musicians, they are sublimely rendered here.

In marketing the show, Writers seems to driving much focus to it being done in the round, but most of the seats in the Nichols Theater have always been set around an arc. For patrons filling in the circle on banks of seats unique to this production, the perspective is likely rather nifty, but I really didn't find this to be a major aspect of Griffin's production.

Appreciating the considerable effort to make it seem so seamless, basically you have a terrific musical in the hands of a first-rate cast under the direction of a venerated pro who clearly knows his Sondheim.

Many who worked on this rendition--including scenic designer Scott Davis and costumer Mara Blumenfeld--clearly deserve particular commendation, but Sondheim + Griffin + Writers is a formula that should work wonders.

And indeed it does.

Ever after.

Especially with a nifty twist at the end, which if I was wondering if perhaps @@@@1/2 was merited--just because I recalled some of the Shakespeare Theater Sondheim shows a tad more exquisitely--clarified that this is a pretty much perfect take on a musical that delights across the ages.

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