By Lynn Venhaus
Stephen Sondheim’s lush and richly layered score is flawlessly presented by music director Leah Schultz and an extraordinary 12-piece orchestra, with touching ensemble harmonies to match, setting apart Stray Dog Theatre’s fresh and clever “Into the Woods.”
Since the musical was first produced in 1986 before going to Broadway the next year, audiences have found new ways to see the message behind this beguiling gem: No one is alone.
Starting with its deceptively simple concept featuring familiar fairy tale characters interacting, the second act swerves into much darker territory. For they are desperately seeking happily ever after, but not transforming their lives until they change their selfish, foolish, and childish ways. But eventually, hope emerges after harsh occurrences.
The roster from Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault’s centuries-old literary works includes Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and the childless couple from Thumbelina.
The themes involving parents and children touch on responsibility, morality, and the consequences of wishes to beautiful, emotional effect. (I expect to get misty-eyed in multiple scenes.)
“Nice is different than good.” It is a very grown-up tale that becomes more profound with each viewing and the passage of time, yet its structure isn’t predictable. The complexities of this insightful tale resonate 26 years later, which has been crucial to this show’s staying power.
That’s the genius of Sondheim’s collaboration with book writer and director James Lapine. They both won Tony’s – for score and book – but that year the top prize went to “The Phantom of the Opera.”
(If we’re mentioning prizes, the 2002 revival won the Tony for Best Musical Revival, a London West End revival in 2010 won the Olivier Award, and the most recent Encores! revival in 2022 that was so popular it extended its run multiple times, closing on Jan. 8, won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album – and expect Tony nominations this spring.) Clearly a show that gets better with age, as long as the humanity is displayed.
Before Disney revised fairy tales, many were dark, and upon second glance, it’s not all cuddly forest animals and talking birds. However, director Justin Been recognized the whimsy and the playfulness, which he focuses on, with some snark. That helps considerably on the small intimate stage – yet he does not gloss over the less-than-merry, adding that necessary depth.
The library setting, with well-placed bookshelves, designed by Been and Dominic Emery, gives it a different perspective. The program lists the place as “an old library on the fringes of our memory.” And the time – “Maybe yesterday, could be tomorrow.” Been’s staging adroitly moves the characters physically to convey their power plays. And they leap off the pages, as this cast has no trouble breaking the fourth wall.
The narrator (Jon Hey) introduces four groups of characters – Cinderella (Maggie Nold) wishes to go to the festival, Jack (Shannon Lampkin Campbell) wishes that his cow Milky White would give milk, a baker and his wife (Tyler Luetkenhaus and Margaret Stall) want to have a baby, and Little Red Riding Hood (Grace Langford), wants to visit her grandmother.
The baker’s neighbor is a witch (Jennelle Gilreath Owens) who has been pulling the strings from bitterness. A curse she cast has made them infertile because his father stole her vegetables, including magic beans. Her own mother cursed her, making her old and hideous. In turn, she took the baker’s father’s child, Rapunzel (Dawn Schmid).
The Witch makes a deal – bring her four ingredients “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold” in three days’ time – and she’ll reverse it.
And we’re off “Into the Woods” on the rugged journey, where there is more chicanery afoot. Nobody is who they appear to be. Will they find out if what they’ve always wished for is what they truly want? They will lie, cheat, and steal to achieve their goals, but when the going gets tough, realize they must work together. The characters learn that they must carry each other, or the show will not resonate as deeply.
The 14-member cast fluidly follows its course, with some roles typically doubled. Most display crisp comic timing and strong vocals at the same time, although some characters aren’t that amusing (Jack’s mom, the tragic Rapunzel, and the rather generic roles of Granny and Cinderella’s Mother).
As the petulant Little Red Riding Hood, Grace Langford brings out the girl’s brattiness, and then learns some things: “I Know Things Now.”
The ever reliable and assured Jon Hey plays both the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, who slithers out of owning up to responsibility. And his occasional jig must be a nod to Rumplestiltskin.
This time, though, Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, are played by separate characters. Agile Drew Mizell and animated Sarah Polizzi humorously step into the princes (Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s) and as Cinderella’s awful stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda. It may be stunt-casting, but it works.
In fact, the broader the comedy, the more fun the performer has. It’s a treat to see comical Michael Wells return to the Tower Grove Abbey stage in multiple roles, for he is deliciously wicked as the Wolf (“Hello, Little Girl”), then portray Cinderella’s father, Prince’s steward and make hilarious sound effects as the crying baby.
The splendid Jennelle Gilreath Owens takes a more cynical, less menacing approach to the diva role of the Witch, which suits her, delivering a disconcerting “Last Midnight” and dynamic “Children Will Listen.” Her dialogue stings – especially such memorable lines as “I’m not good; I’m not nice; I’m just right” and “I was just trying to be a good mother.”
Other standouts include Tyler Luetkenhaus and Margaret Stall as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, both making noteworthy debuts. They breezily sail through “It Takes Two,” while their signatures “Moments in the Woods” and “No One Is Alone” are superb.
Bringing out the baker’s flaws, Luetkenhaus adds a layer of deceit that’s not always there, and you sense that the couple is truly working through their issues as the characters. It’s not always as superficial as some of the other characterizations. They delve into the hearts and minds.
Shannon Lampkin Campbell is a spunky yet naive Jack the Giant Killer, robust in “Giants in the Sky.” Been has moved the physical confrontation between the giant’s wife, steward and Jack’s mom (Laura Lee Kyro) offstage, which accounts for less fireworks. Yet, Milky White is as funny as ever, with its goofy, squatty, small appearance.
Just as she showed in “A Little Night Music,” Madeline Black has a regal bearing and her speech pattern accents the haughtiness of Cinderella’s stepmother. Granny and Cinderella’s mother are handled competently by Jennifer Clodi, who also voices the frightening Giant and his livid Wife.
The princess roles are capably filled by Dawn Schmid as distraught Rapunzel and Maggie Nold as tormented Cinderella, bringing out their characters’ insecurities.
The ensemble appears to be having fun together and has the silky-smooth voices to meet their major moments. It’s such a pleasure to hear the sublime Sondheim sung as intended.
Schultz has conducted the orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick with expert finesse, nimbly leading Marie Brown and Paul Rueschhoff on cello (alternating performances), Mo Carr on trumpet, Chuck Evans on viola, Steve Frisbee on violin, John Gerdes on horn, Lea Gerdes on flute, piccolo and reed, Mike Hanson on percussion, Ian Hayden on reed, and M. Joshua Ryan on bass through Sondheim’s recurring motifs. They are strategically placed among the bookshelves, a savvy touch.
Sarah Gene Dowling’s colorful wig design enhances the fantasy storybook world, pairing well with Eileen Engel’s character-appropriate costume design.
Jacob Baxley’s sound design is crystal clear, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design effectively sets the moods.
And because the songs are so exquisitely rendered, moments will linger. The second act is aural perfection, connecting the story threads into a magical experience that is awe-inspiring.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “Into the Woods” March 30 – April 22 at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 2 and Sunday, April 16, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, Saint Louis, MO 63104. Gated Parking. Additional information and ticket reservations: Call (314) 865-1995. Visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
The 3/31, 4/7, 4/14, and 4/21 performances will be presented with ASL interpretation by students from Southwestern Illinois College. ASL interpreted performances are suitable for audience members who are Deaf, deafened, or have hearing loss. They can also be valuable for people who are learning ASL.
Audio Description: The 4/16 performance will be Audio Described by MindsEye. Audio Described performances are suitable for audience members who are blind or partially sighted. Please note that if you are interested in participating in the audio description of this performance you will need to call the Box Office to order your ticket. Please announce that you would like to reserve a pair of headphones for the Audio Description.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.