Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s magnum opus “Into the Woods” is a clever riff on the well-trodden path of traditional fairy tales. Told through the lens of many familiar Grimm’s characters, the musical is a riveting twist on the morals and lessons of wishful thinking and especially how every action leads to a consequence whether intentional or not. In their journey through the work of the godfather of American musical theater, Slow Burn Theatre Co’s “Into the Woods” brings this work to new life, while treading a familiar road. “Into the Woods” runs at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts from now until October 29 with tickets available here.
As many fairy tales begin, a Narrator (Matthew Korinko) triumphantly introduces the show with “Once upon a time” as a triptych stage design establishes three tales. The downtrodden maid Cinderella (Kimmi Johnson Grimes) who wishes to go to the king’s festival in spite of the demands of her Stepmother (Jinon Deeb) and irritating stepsisters Florinda (Kristi Rose Mills) and Lucinda (Kate Stenzel). Similarly, the dimwitted child Jack (Luis Pablo Garcia) wishes his beloved cow Milky White (Aaron Atkinson) could produce milk so he would not have to be sold at market, at the behest of his loving yet overbearing Mother (Patti Gardner). In the least familiar of these stories, we are then brought into the central conflict of the show with The Baker (Ben Liebert) and his wife (Melissa Whitworth) who wish desperately to have a child, but were cursed many years ago by a Witch (Jeni Hacker) due to Jack’s father being caught rummaging through her garden.
The Witch sets the Baker and his wife off on their quest to find four objects to reverse the curse she placed on them and lead all the characters to their “Happily ever after” in the traditional format of fairy tales. Along the search for “the cape as red as blood” they encounter the boisterous Little Red Ridinghood (Giselle Watts) as she is told to not stray from the path to grandmother’s house while stuffing her face with sweets from the Baker. While in the woods, a gorgeous lilting soprano of Rapunzel (Mikayla Cohen) attracts the attention of a frustrated prince (Sergi Robles). Similarly, his brother, Cinderella’s Prince (Ralph Meitzler) is also beset by a maiden he danced with at his father’s festival. As the duo laments their “Agony” in a brilliant duet they devise plans to marry the two women in spite of the obstacles of a tower and a maiden on the run.
In his own words, Sondheim has regarded the character of Cinderella as having the largest growth to undergo the entire show. As she (spoiler) gets her prince, the massive act two transformation reveals what happens after the “happily ever after.” Transforming from a lowly maiden into a princess of the kingdom, Kimmi Johnson Grimes beautifully delivers the score in a brilliant soprano with some acting choices that truly reinforces the heartbreak of getting what you wish for.
Presented as an ensemble piece, there are some absolute standouts within this cast of highly talented performers. As the audience surrogate, The Baker is performed by Ben Liebert with both a physicality and a vocal capacity to tackle an extremely tongue-twisting set of lyrics. While relatively stoic amongst the throngs of witches and wolves throughout the show, Liebert’s performance of the ballad “No More” is heart-wrenchingly and tearfully sung as a rejection of generational trauma and choosing to be a leader for a family. Returning from her previous Slow Burn appearance as the “practically perfect” run as Mary Poppins, Melissa Whitworth as the Baker’s Wife. Whitworth knows exactly where to place her characterization as a steadfast woman pining for motherhood, with a strident voice she belts through tracks like “Maybe They’re Magic.” As their direct foil, Little Red Ridinghood and Jack are both framed as young and idealistic to The Baker and his wife’s more rational, measured view. Little Red, performed by Giselle Watts who aside from tactfully tackling wordy patter songs expertly plays a deceptively naïeve character with the chops of a seasoned performer. Meanwhile, Jack’s character arc from childish and frustrated through the tragic events of the show reveal a measured approach that is betrayed by Luis Pablo Garcia’s youthful energy. In a tall triple order, Elizabeth Dimon plays Little Red’s Granny, Cinderella’s Mother who appears as a ghost and the Giant’s Wife with equal temperament and equally distinct characterizations.
However, the true show stealer is Jeni Hacker as The Witch. Donning a hag mask, a hunch and claws in the first act, Hacker is an absolute chameleon and makes the role purely her own. Sure, one could easily point to Bernadette Peters or Vanessa Williams as a point of reference to the characterization but Hacker is not one for imitation. Having witnessed her entirely original spin as Diana in “Next to Normal” only a few months prior, Jeni Hacker is capable of summoning a gravitas to a role that does not evoke immediate comparison to the actor originating the role. Hacker’s Witch is comedic gold, uninhibited evil, a force capable of compassion and disdain, all brewing to a head in the “Last Midnight.”
Setting the stage for “Into the Woods,” scenic designer Kelly Tighe utilizes both the triptych as a visual storytelling device, but what is truly breathtaking is the sense of depth and scale created by the forest set. Adorned with hand-painted trees paying homage to the original 1987 key art, Tighe creates an environment so seemingly massive and complex one could fathom that it goes on for miles with a height and canopy rivaling redwoods. Lighting designer Clifford Spulock evokes a more naturalistic approach here, with washes of blues and greens on top of the standard spotlights that make our protagonists actually appear as if they’ve become lost in the woods. With seemingly millions of lighting cues executed to a nanosecond to the music, one of the most impressive is the creation of The Giant’s Wife solely through brilliant spotlights.
Though the lyrics and book are center stage in this production, the recent Encores! Version of “Into the Woods” that played Broadway to massive success reinforced that Sondheim’s lush arrangements, complex motifs and clever interplay of musicianship is best experienced with live musicians. Featuring a 10-piece ensemble of strings, horns, keys and percussion directed by James Mablin, the score is presented in a faithful interpretation of Sondheim’s lush score.
The original production in 1987 was outshined by a Phantom at the Tony Awards and while the first revival in 2002 took home a coveted Best Revival win, audiences and critics were divided on the changes both Sondheim and Lapine made that bogged down the material. However, with a massive star-studded yet stripped down concert version of “Into the Woods” in 2022 selling out the St. James Theater night after night, there is no doubt that Sondheim’s work is getting a resurgence.
In this production, director Patrick Fitzwater fundamentally understands what makes the heart of a show like “Into the Woods” tick. While the 1987 iteration was filmed for PBS in an edition of Great Performances that has delighted many a theatre class for decades, Fitzwater chooses to take the core of what made that rendition of the show so impactful while modernizing aspects of the staging. Such as, the inclusion of Milky White performed by a human puppeteer that was praised so highly in the 2022 rendition in a performance by Kennedy Kanagawa. The vocal arrangements of every syllable and overlapping harmony are meticulously mapped out and blended beautifully, while undoubtedly the inclusion of the orchestra makes this version of “Into the Woods” an experience. Even in developing the costuming with designer Rick Peña, Fitzwater’s approach to wigs and props take reference from the many renditions of “Into the Woods,” particularly the color blocking on The Baker and his wife, Jack and Little Red. On the more traditional fantasy end, the resplendent gowns of Cinderella, her stepsisters and stepmother are so intricately adorned with a period silhouette that brings storybook characters to life.
Slow Burn Theatre Co’s “Into the Woods” is a joyous homage to finding peace in a world gone amok through the lens of familiar storybook tales. With a lush, orchestral arrangement interweaving intricate vocal performances, the cast and crew are paying a great homage every single show to the Shakespeare of American Musical Theatre, Stephen Sondheim. A wondrous show for audiences of all ages, “Into the Woods” is a heartwarming subversion of wishful thinking. Do not get caught saying “I Wish!” as the last midnight for “Into the Woods” is October 29. Tickets are available via Ticketmaster now.