Ten Thousand Things’ production of Into the Woods is hardly typical, but at intermission on opening night it did produce a typical range of audience reactions. “That was delightful!” “So charming, and everything worked out!” “Wait... it’s not over?” “The narrator said, ‘To be continued.’”
Composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine realized they needed to add that line after an early preview of the 1986 musical, when an usher had to run across the parking lot to stop a busload of satisfied theatergoers from rolling out. “There’s more,” the usher shouted, “there’s more!”
Three decades later, it still feels subversive that Into the Woods dares to challenge the notion of “happily ever after.” The play’s second act is one of the most elaborate anticlimaxes in all of musical theater, to the point where it’s hard not to feel a little abused. If anyone can keep you in the woods with these triumphant-turned-troubled characters, though, it’s Ten Thousand Things.
In the first production she’s led since becoming artistic director, Marcela Lorca keeps the company’s accessible yet ambitious spirit very much intact. Its productions, which are staged in the round with lights up so they can tour to non-traditional venues, always require an illusionist’s gift for theatrical sleight-of-hand, and that’s particularly true of this sprawling musical.
Nine performers play more than twice that many characters, while also wielding instruments to support music director Peter Vitale, who performs the Olympic feat of doing a full-length Sondheim musical as a one-man band. It’s a rewardingly fresh approach to this material, which can tempt producers to get bogged down with costumes and effects.
No effect (certainly not in the ill-judged Disney movie adaptation) could delight the way Jim Lichtscheidl’s humble baker does as he steels himself to cut into the belly of a wolf, or could shock the way Rajané Katurah does with a piercing scream when her treasured red riding hood is stolen. This human-powered production highlights the characters’ modesty, and their vulnerability.
The intimate approach also serves Sondheim’s typically twisted lyrics, which come across beautifully in all their rapid-fire glory. Characters like Jack (Ben Lohrberg) and the Witch (Austene Van) subvert their archetypes with subtle gestures as well as broad comedy.
That makes this a must-see show for longtime fans, and a fine introduction for newcomers.
This production is one to celebrate, marking a new era for one of our most innovative and justly celebrated companies. Despite its varied downers, in the end the show sounds a note of hope in keeping with the occasion: Times change, but the power of great storytelling
Into the Woods
Open Book/North Garden Theater
Tenthousandthings.org; through March 24
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