Few theater-makers mess with their creation’s free will quite like Stephen Sondheim. His 1987 musical, Into the Woods, is a masterclass on fourth wall breaking, and the dramatic tonal shift in Act II is always as exciting to watch as it is difficult to pull off.
A play on classic fairytales, Into the Woods is a mature exploration of morality, love, and whether people are ever truly good or bad. As the plot progresses, lives are entangled, and relationships are formed — for better or for worse.
Into the Woods is heavily formulaic in that comedic beats and technical elements are built into the first act in such a way that discourages reinvention. Sondheim crafted a ridiculously tight show, and our intrepid directors must decide if they want to reimagine Into the Woods simply for the sake of reimagination, or if they would rather focus on the journey into humanity that Sondheim has offered up on a silver platter. The Arlington Players have chosen to run with the latter — and their production of Into the Woods pulls it off nicely.
In Act I, director Krissy McGregor and set designer Bill Murray have worked together to create a classic three-panel setup. Murray created some interesting moments while adhering to tried-and-true ideas, and it was refreshing to see the middle panel depicting the Baker’s house pulled straight up and off the deck rather than brought into a wing. Murray and his team made a good choice in using the largest pieces as framing devices, essentially nixing smaller pieces.
Director McGregor opted to don her choreographer hat to convey moments otherwise supported by set pieces — like Cinderella’s stepfamily attending the ball. Instead of a cumbersome carriage set piece, McGregor inserted a twist on a traveling triplet. This solidifies the stepfamily as a unit and takes advantage of the trot built into the dance move. Simple adjustments like this cut out the need for superfluous tech and allow transitions to be seamless and fun to watch. Take notes!
The cast is stuffed with talent, with every actor in possession of a beautifully dexterous voice. Some standouts include Cody Boehm, whose Cinderella is refreshingly dry and just the tiniest bit disillusioned. Boehm is a true Sondheim soprano with a voice like melted butter, and her relationship with Little Red (AnnaBelle Lowe) shines through in “No One Is Alone” — with Lowe matching her both in emotional refinement and singing chops. Another gorgeous moment came to fruition with “No More,” the duet between The Baker (Chris D’Angelo) and the Mysterious Man (Rene “Kieth” Flores). D’Angelo’s and Flores’ voices are a match made in heaven, and McGregor plopped a cherry on top of a delicious sundae by sticking D’Angelo on a rock and having Flores hover near him uncertainly for the entirety of the number. She hit the nail on the head; we don’t need any fancy staging here. The score speaks for itself — and the actors can certainly carry it off.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Usually, The Narrator (Grey Moszkowski) recites these fairytales as if from a novel — à la Grimm Bros. However, in TAP’s production, the characters are being written into cognition before our very eyes. In Act I, The Narrator produces a piece of paper and quill before the first chord is struck. He is making it up as he goes along. This is a colossal twist on the material with mixed results.
Moszkowski’s Narrator is appropriately sadistic, and we empathize with the rest of the cast when he is accused of messing with the story. However, if we’re going ahead with the narrator/author idea, the ensuing chaos must be flawlessly motivated. When The Narrator is axed, some characters — like The Steward (Morgan DeHart) — are left at a crossroads. Some embrace the role The Narrator has foisted upon them. In The Steward’s case, he is doomed to the role of stooge — intent on carrying out punitive justice for the greater good. Some characters grow and change, and some are punished for their wrongs. Does The Baker’s Wife (played by the incomparable Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo) perish because she has gained full autonomy and would have steered the plot in a direction not originally prescribed by The Narrator? Is this some leftover retribution The Narrator had in store for her, but the process was botched because he was cut off halfway through his artistic process? Adding a tertiary layer to the plot was an interesting idea — but how meta do we really want to get?
This pseudo-creator choice was a bold one and leaves us with more questions than answers. TAP’s production can stand on its own without added elements. TAP came through with an impeccable cast and smart tech, and that, in and of itself, is enough.
Running Time: Three hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Into the Woods plays through October 8, 2023, presented by The Arlington Players performing at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, 125 South Old Glebe Road, Arlington, VA. Tickets ($30 for adults, $25 for seniors and military, and $20 for students and children) can be purchased online or by calling The Box Office at 703-549-1063.
The cast, creative, and production credits are online here.