Into the Woods may be Stephen Sondheim’s most crowd-pleasing musical, stuffed nearly to bursting with familiar names, extravagant plotting, and a sly mingling of satirical humor and pathos. (The book is by James Lapine, who also collaborated with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park with George and Passion.) Within the woods’ charmed circle, morals are deceptively simple, melodies are hummable, and lyrics crackle with wit. (Sings a philandering prince to his next conquest: “Life is often so unpleasant / You must know that, as a peasant / Best to take the moment present / As a present for the moment.”) If ultimately the characters and themes are less nuanced than in the best of Sondheim’s work, they nevertheless add up to a very enjoyable time.
Likewise, the production that opened Friday at the Drama Learning Center, the Columbia home of the Red Branch Theatre Company, is less polished than the work I am accustomed to seeing there. Even so, Red Branch features one of the area’s most consistently excellent ensembles, and its version of Woods, directed by Jenny Male, is always entertaining and occasionally inspired—never more so than when the spotlight falls on its unconventionally conventional leads, chief among them Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack on his beanstalk, and a childless baker and his wife.
In brief, Into the Woods takes the best-known tales of The Brothers Grimm—as darkly read by Freudian psychology—and tosses them in a blender. The results are ingenious pairings and paths that cross and re-cross in the foreboding forest, into which everyone must venture to obtain their dearest wish, and from which some exit wiser … and some not at all. In the first act, lurking dangers are easily—if not always honorably—resolved, and happy endings prevail; in the second act, threats are greater and the endings more dearly bought.
In the show’s most complex and (not coincidentally) sympathetic roles, director Male casts three Red Branch veterans—Janelle Broderick, David Frankenberger, Jr., and Sara Cobb—and each gives a stellar performance. Broderick is a resourceful Cinderella as well as a lovely one, self-possessed and not at all sure she wants to marry a prince. In their scenes together as the unnamed baker and wife, Frankenberger and Cobb chart the whole course of a marriage, as support gives way to resentment, passion flirts with boredom, and the commonplace details of everyday living distract from the wonder of love.
Though the cast is filled with excellent singers, what sets these three apart is their ability to locate the many beats, large and small, in Sondheim’s score, to frame each thought as the melodic line carries it to them. Comparable depths exist in Jennifer Weinreich’s Red Ridinghood and Arden Moscati’s Jack, though their characters are somewhat more fixed—she, the girl thrilled by the onset of womanhood; he, the sweetly muddleheaded boy. The gorgeous quartet “No One Is Alone,” during which Cinderella and the baker transform, to their astonishment, into surrogate parents as Jack and Red Ridinghood come of age, is the emotional high point of the show.
Rounding out the leads is a witch, played by Priscilla Cuellar, who “for purposes of her own” intrudes in the others’ stories. Cuellar has a powerfully expressive voice, well-suited to the witch’s powerhouse repertoire; in her tangled gray wig and black cloak, she is a cackling fright. Yet at times Male seems unsure how to use her—too often Cuellar breaks from her fellow actors to belt her songs directly to the audience.
The supporting roles are generally well cast. Emily Mudd sings beautifully as Rapunzel, and Melynda Burdette makes a hilariously deadpan mother for Jack. Danny Tippett and Tim Grieb have a lot of fun as a pair of Prince Charmings, bounding onstage and off in pursuit of every woman they meet. Tippett also plays Red Ridinghood’s wolf; their shared number, “Hello, Little Girl,” is smoothly choreographed but a bit subdued, a criticism that extends to several other performances, most disappointingly Kevin Cleaver’s Mysterious Man, who rarely seems interested in the action. (In fairness to Cleaver, he comes alive for his only song, a quietly moving duet with Frankenberger.) Special praise goes to Melissa Paper, who as Jack’s cow, Milky White, comments drolly on the action through facial expressions only, and Leah Broderick, who operates a variety of animals, including a chicken with perfect comic timing.