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Twenty-two years after first staging Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, the Arden Theatre Company has wandered back into this enchanted, occasionally treacherous, forest. Much has changed in the ensuing decades, of course, and a series of complicating factors have arisen since the revival was first announced last summer.
Sondheim, inarguably the most consequential musical theater composer of the late 20th century, died unexpectedly in November 2021, at 91. It’s impossible not to consider current productions of his work through the lens of tribute, whether intended or not. The Arden is perhaps the company in Philadelphia most closely associated with Sondheim’s oeuvre—it has staged nearly every major entry in his catalog, and honored him in an onsite ceremony in 2015—and director Terrence J. Nolen has taken pains to not simply remount this classic, but to reimagine it.
The other unplanned hurdle is one of competition. Following a successful concert staging of Into the Woods at New York City's City Center last month, a Broadway transfer was hastily announced, with performances beginning June 28. The illustrious cast includes Hamilton alum Phillipa Soo, pop star Sara Bareilles, and Tony Award winner Gavin Creel. The new Broadway mounting will overlap with the Arden’s production for two weeks.
A sophisticated staging
I found the New York staging twee and juvenile when I saw it in early May. Sondheim may be rightly venerated for his insights on the human condition, but the messaging in Into the Woods can come across as moralistic and obvious. In an unsuccessful outing, it feels like an after-school special for adults.
Luckily, Nolen and a superb group of actors and designers treat the material here with a level of sophistication that overcomes any sanctimonious posturing. They emphasize the human scale of the story rather than the fairy-tale contrivances. They don’t shy away from the genuine darkness imbued in the sunny scenarios involving strapping princes, gold slippers, and happily ever after.
Rarely has the long-unfulfilled desire of the Baker (Ben Dibble) and his Wife (Katherine Fried) to have a child seemed so achingly relatable, and rarely has their gentle bickering felt so believably true. Ditto the realization from Cinderella—performed on opening night by the phenomenal understudy Anna DeBlasio—that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the palace wall. Even the Witch (Kim Carson), whose curse anchors the story, emerges as a sympathetic, three-dimensional figure, a woman using the little power she possesses to achieve a modicum of happiness.
The production achieves these revelations without any major attempts at eye-popping stagecraft. Nolen borrows elements of traditional story theater, foregrounding simplicity and clearly delivered narrative. James Kronzer’s spare scenic design stands in for humble abodes and grand ballrooms alike. It proves a fine canvas for Jorge Arroyo’s evocative lighting, which infuses the proceedings with chilly dread whenever the characters enter the haunted forest or encounter the scary giant intent on doing them harm. Levonne Lindsay’s contemporary costumes nicely delineate character, as does Billy Bustamante’s subtle but memorable choreography.
Rich dramatic portraits
Nearly across the board, the company marries rich dramatic portraits with scrupulous musical virtues. Kudos to music director Ryan Touhey for his fine orchestrations and zesty conducting of the six-person band on opening night, and to sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson for keeping the balances crisp and airy.
Carson is first among equals, meeting the dexterous vocal challenges and sharply outlining the Witch’s motives before and after her disastrous transformation. Fried, another musical dynamo, brings an almost painfully youthful flair to the Baker’s Wife’s unflagging optimism that makes her ultimate demise even more crushing than usual. Although Dibble’s comedic style is a touch broad for this production, the beauty of his singing remains unabated.
It's hard to believe that DeBlasio, with a real clarion soprano and a distinctive, memorable timbre, isn’t playing Cinderella full time. I can’t imagine anyone better. Fine support also comes from the big-voiced Grace Ellis Solomon (Little Red Riding Hood), Ellis Gage (Jack), and Arden veteran Scott Greer, unusually forceful in the joint roles of Narrator and Mysterious Man.
An enchanted end
Some ideas don’t work. I can sense on paper why double-casting Cinderella’s Stepsisters and the Princes might be an intriguing idea—it underscores the vapid nature of both sets of characters—but the constant cutesy switching required of Garrick Vaughan and Vanessa Sterling to pull this off starts to feel like an attenuated parlor trick. Also cast as the Wolf, Vaughan doesn’t bring the necessary danger to his encounters with Little Red.
Overall, Into the Woods provides an enchanted end to the Arden’s season. Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood, as the show’s lyrics state. But wherever he is, I’m sure Sondheim is proud.
What, When, Where
Into the Woods. By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Terrence J. Nolen. Choreography by Billy Bustamante. Music direction by Ryan Touhey. $18-$53. Through July 10, 2022, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required for attendance. Audiences must be masked at all times.
The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be open-captioned and audio-described performances on Friday, June 24 at 8pm and Saturday, June 25 at 2pm. Assisted-listening devices are available for all performances.
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