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THEATER REVIEW Into the Woods
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2019-08-30

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Score: Stephen Sondheim; Book: James Lapine

At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000 or WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80. Runs through: Sept. 22

The moralistic folk and fairytales gathered by the Brothers Grimm have fascinated kids for more than two centuries. These tales have also proven to be valuable creative fodder for generations of artists, too.

This long storytelling legacy is very clear with Writers Theatre's wonderfully intimate take on the classic 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods.

Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine ingeniously combined the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel into their own tale of a childless Baker and his wife. Along with its delightful retelling of the timeless tales, Into the Woods wades into darker territory as characters face a catastrophe borne out of their own selfishness.

Director Gary Griffin and scenic designer Scott Davis reconfigure Writers' Nichols Theatre to be "in the round," which gives an eternal "campfire tales" feeling. Griffin's Into the Woods also uses the entire space to push audiences to use their imagination, since not everything is scenically illustrated.

But you don't need a literal Rapunzel tower or fallen giant. Lighting designer Lee Fiskness and sound designer Christopher M. Laporte help to both conceal and illuminate the wonderment with effects ranging from the blood-red horror of a hungry wolf to the unsettling stomps of an angry giant. Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld also elaborately dresses up the cast as you'd expect for a fairytale. ( Her outfit for Mary Poole as the elderly cow Milky White is especially hilarious. )

But Into the Woods also relies on a comically dexterous and dramatically probing cast to bring out its full depth. Thankfully, Griffin's ensemble doesn't disappoint on either count, nor in the musical department as they confidently navigate of Sondheim's tricky score as re-orchestrated by music director Matt Deitchman for a talented trio.

Bethany Thomas makes for a very commanding Witch, who prods Michael Mahler's dim Baker and Brianna Borger's savvier Baker's Wife on their scavenger hunt-like journey so they can reverse a curse to have a child.

Ryan McBride and Alex Benoit play up the manly gallantry of their respective Princes for Cinderella ( Ximone Rose ) and Rapunzel ( Cecilia Iole ), and all four sport gorgeous voices. Lucy Godínez and Ben Barker are also great a playing up the respective adolescent overconfidence of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack.

Some may have qualms with Griffin using students from the Merit School of Music Youth Ensemble as props at the end. But this decision hammers home how the Grimm Brothers' stories, as filtered through Sondheim and Lapine and anyone staging Into the Woods, will continue to teach and inspire for generations to come.


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