By Peter Thomas Ricci
One of the marque pleasures of theater-going is experiencing new talent for the first time. As enjoyable as it is seeing veteran actors tackle new roles – and indeed, it’s a blast watching such artists take risks and upend expectations – there is a unique joy in seeing fresh performers leave their mark on the stage, and in Writers Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” I experienced such a jolt from Ximone Rose, who portrayed Cinderella in the fairy tale-inspired musical. With expert comedic timing and one of the most soaring, effortlessly beautiful singing voices I have ever heard on a stage, Rose is a true talent, and I eagerly anticipate seeing her perform in future productions throughout the city.
That said, “Into the Woods” is a musical that incorporates several classic fairy tales into a genre-defying narrative of magic and morality, and in a musical of such complexity and ambition, one role does not make the whole musical; and thankfully, Writers Theatre continued its history of excellence with a cast and crew that did Sondheim proud. Under the direction of Gary Griffin, the actors – who include such talents as Bethany Thomas (a sensational Witch), Michael Mahler (a terrific Baker), Lucy Godínez (a wonderfully bratty Little Rid Riding Hood), and Brianna Borger (a nuanced Baker’s Wife) – handle Sondheim’s demanding music with aplomb, as they breeze through his complex melodies and linguistically intimidating lyrical feats. “Into the Woods” is a musical with two distinct acts – a riveting, rollicking first act, and an extraordinarily dark, bloody second act – and it is a further testament to these actors that they do not merely excel at one of those acts, but rather, that they thrive in both settings.
And what a setting! I expect superb work from the Writers team each time I am there, but the phantasmagorical sets of “Into the Woods” set a new standard for musicals in the company’s space. Scott Davis’ scenic design is an expert example of “less is more” – various greenery hung from the rafters to capture the density of the woods, while a large, mangled tree not only encompassed the show’s first-rate band, but also complemented the musical’s themes; Sondheim does not merely adapt fairy tales, but rather, contorts and interrogates them through the medium of musical theater. And it is through Lee Fiskness’ astonishing lighting that the show really shines. With strategically placed lights to the sides of the main performing space, Fiskness brings out a greater depth in Davis’ sets that initially meets the eye; in other words, what begins as a performing space for reimagined fairy tales becomes something far more dense and horrifying.
It is always a joy seeing Sondheim performed, but Sondheim performed well is unlike any other theatrical experience, and Writers Theatre has provided a most fine testament to the master’s musical ingenuity.
Prologue: Into the Woods
Hello, Little Girl
I Guess This Is Goodbye
Maybe They’re Magic
I Know Things Now
A Very Nice Prince
Giants in the Sky
It Takes Two
Stay With Me
On the Steps of the Palace
Prologue: So Happy
Moments in the Woods
No One Is Alone
Finale: Children Will Listen
Playing through September 22 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe IL, 60022
Tickets are available at writerstheatre.org, or by calling 847-242-6000
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