Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Into the Woods
And that's Sondheim for you. He is the Shakespeare of musical comedy. But it's the same thing in Company and Follies too: getting what you want, going mad upon reflection, and feeling strangely robbed by fate in the bargain. Or at least finding one's self bitter and exhausted and deeply perplexed by the limits of life-learning. Which is not the same thing, I know, as literal mortification. "I feel like a character in a Sondheim song," one might say, after knee replacement surgery. To register despair.
The composer/lyricist, with librettist (and original director) James Lapine, is dealing out of his strong suit here. So just let it wash over you, the ultra-hi-def version of your childhood legends coming to life in song and dance. There is no choreographer credited for this show, but it all moves with superb style and flourish.
There is a regular sense of a state of foundational wonder, as beautiful human desires (which may be the ultimate spectacle) are delineated again and again in this two and a half-hour production. And then there's a madder sort of wonder when wishes are actually granted and nobody can do anything but sing, in a seizure-like state of rapture. I suppose Sondheim knew we were strange, as a species.
The never-ending rush of smart humor and beautiful song are worth a devil's bargain. I should hasten to add that there actually is no devil in this, though there is a witch and a big bad wolf. The whole thing could be 30 minutes shorter, but you do get a full dose of great minds at work and lots of very talented people on stage, under the direction of Justin Been and the musical direction of Leah Schultz.
American Theatre Magazine lists Into the Woods as the eighth most popularly produced play in the current season, nationwide. And it's a hit here, full of strong detail and wild complications, each with just the right amount of emotional articulation. On a slightly different topic, a poster going by the username "manchurch03104" smartly remarked recently on All That Chat that Sondheim would never hire a singer over an actor (sorry, Josh Groban). I suppose I buy it, too, because the songs in Into the Woods could never be sung by an idiot (to paraphrase the Scottish play). Well, perhaps they could be sung by an idiot under the direction of Mr. Been.
But you never have to choose here: the singing is right on par with the solid acting. The Baker and his Wife (Tyler Luetkenhaus and Margaret Stall) make for a soulful center of a nearly all-white cast (plus the fantastic Grace Langford, who is Asian-American, delightful as Little Red Ridinghood). It's probably just a random thing, as representation has never been a problem at Stray Dog in the past. So my inclination is to be a little surprised and maybe just the tiniest bit disappointed on this count.
Jonathan Hey leads the way as the Narrator in a fully realized performance with an ingratiating hint of 19th century grandiloquence. It all starts with him scouring the nooks and crannies on stage till he finds this mad story on top of a sort of Prospero's bookshelf. And Jennelle Gilreath Owens, who sings beautifully (and eventually comes out from under a black hood), is inscrutably fun herding the Baker and his Wife through a crazy journey, as the mysterious witch, mastering the complexity of song and story in every moment.
Local (modern) stage history is nicely represented by Laura Lee Kyro, as the mother of Jack, who grows the Beanstalk, and by Jennifer Clodi, as the ghost of Cinderella's mother. Both actresses are around my age, so they don't seem like history to me, of course. But you can easily get lost in their performances, after everything they've learned over the years, in a way that younger actors can only dream of. Shannon Lampkin Campbell is earnest and resolute as Jack, and Maggie Nold is outstanding as Cinderella, like some pretty young zen mistress, stuck in the flypaper of royal temptation. Drew Mizell and Sarah Polizzi are lovable and unexpectedly funny as the two princes. And vocal powerhouse Dawn Schmid glories in the role of Rapunzel. (The wigs, by Sarah Gene Dowling, are a wonder to behold in every case, with outstanding costume design by Eileen Engel.)
With the memorable exception of the purely carnal Wolf (delightful Michael Wells, who also plays the cartoonishly officious royal steward) and likewise excepting the members of the step-family in Cinderella's childhood home (Madeline Black is appropriately haughty as the stepmom), each of the characters seems to have a thoughtful and detailed background and character arc. But that much story begins to seem like a lot to carry around after the first two hours. Still, the cast fills every moment of twists and turns and complications with wit and defiance in the face of real-world madness.
And, to think: it all begins with good old "happily ever after."
Into the Woods runs through April 22, 2023, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
* Appearing during select performances