Venture ‘Into the Woods’ with Laughter and Heartache at the Kennedy Center

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I have a checkered history with Sondheim’s Into the Woods. I came to the show very late. I listened to the recording and was not overly impressed. I saw an amateur production and left even less enthralled. Then I saw the 2014 Disney movie and was blown away. I saw the story for what it was (and could be), and I fell in love.

And my kids? Even more so. At 4 and 6, they absolutely adored the film, and we went to see it multiple times in the theater. And when she was 5, my daughter had the opportunity to solo Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now,” so the show has become a family favorite.

Obviously, it was with much excitement that we went to the Kennedy Center to check out Fiasco Theater’s “experimental” production of the musical, which had an acclaimed Broadway run and is in town for the holidays.

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The first thing you’ll notice about this production is the set. Intended to be a bit spartan, the set immediately evokes descriptions such as “spare” and “bare-bones.” But that would be selling it short. This isn’t simplicity for its own sake. One of Fiasco Theater’s missions is to embrace the audience as an integral part of the performance and not only reveal their “stage magic” but also integrate the audience and actors into one seamless process.

Everyday objects are used in place of elaborate sets. So instead of a foreboding tower for Rapunzel, she’s sitting at the top of a ladder. Rather than an elaborate costume or make-up job, the wolf is a mounted head used as a “puppet.” Cinderella’s birds are fluttering pieces of paper in the hands of other actors. Milky White is played (to great comedic effect) by an actor instead of a lifeless prop. And none of this matters one bit.

In fact, this approach highlights the actors, songs, and interactions happening on stage. Rather than focusing on impressive set design that “transports you to the woods,” you can focus on the music, which does the same thing much more effectively.

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right; you decide what’s good.

A small total of 11 actors play every role, with most of them doing double (or triple) duty. When they’re not center stage for a scene, the actors sit along the periphery of the stage, and many play musical accompaniment (piano, guitar, oboe, and drums all form part of the set).

And the music comes alive. Sondheim’s lyrics for Into the Woods have always had multiple layers and plenty of room for interpretation, but the show’s primary theme of parenthood (and the trials and difficulties inherent to it) really shines in this production.

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Maybe it was because I was sitting beside my daughter during the show, but I found that this performance really accentuates the play’s messages of parenthood, the heartache involved with growing up, the fallibility of being human, and the importance of family – no matter how flawed it might be. And I’ll not lie; the emotionally powerful 1-2 punch of “No More” and “No One Is Alone” at the end of the second act may have brought a tear (or two) to my eye.

If you’ve ever seen it, you know that Into the Woods has two very disparate acts. The tone of the play takes a dramatic shift during the second half. And this cast made the transition beautifully. The first act is filled with lighthearted comedy (along with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments) and fun, alternate takes on familiar fairy tale characters.

Guide them along the way,
Still they won’t listen.
Children can only grow
From something you love,
To something you lose.

It’s during the second act, though, that Into the Woods becomes something so much more than satire or playful, metaphorical storytelling. You travel through the relatively carefree messages of Act I (you travel through the woods, as it were) to arrive at Act II and its heavier, more somber tone with songs about responsibility and loss. As such, it’s a heartbreaking analogy for growing up and the often painful transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Philippe Arroyo (Jack), Anthony Chatmon (Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince), and Darick Pead (Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince) shine whenever they’re center stage during Act I. Their ability to alternate between roles in the middle of a scene and bring the house down with laughter made the first half of the show a sheer delight.

In the second half of the show, though, Eleasha Gamble (Baker’s Wife) and Vanessa Reseland (Witch) steal the show. They bring a complex and passionate weight to the stage, and the entire second half is essentially one giant emotional gut punch. Especially if you’re a parent.

Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide whats good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.

We recommend this production of Into the Woods without reservation. This year, I might even suggest it over The Nutcracker as the must-do DC holiday event for the family. If you’re local to the region or visiting Washington, DC, this holiday season, definitely add it to your list.

Into the Woods runs through January 8, 2017 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 8 pm. Matinee performances are at 2 pm. Tickets start at $45. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center website, in-person at the Kennedy Center box office, or call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

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Jamie is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. When he's not knee deep in a convoluted grammatical mess of a sentence, he's likely on an adventure with his two adorable ragamuffins. You can check out more of his ramblings on The Roarbots, StarWars.com, and Babble.