Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Theatre Review: “Into the Woods” at Slow Burn Theatre

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” until this past weekend, when I absorbed Slow Burn Theatre’s superlative production at the Broward Center. Having seen the show previously in South Florida as well as its movie adaptation prepared me little for the depth of emotion and the cerebral exchange of ideas it explores, particularly in its darker and philosophical second act.

The first act, by contrast, is the theatrical equivalent of a macaroon—seductively textured and delightfully tasty but insubstantial if you’re seeking food for thought. It’s a more-or-less faithful representation of a handful of Grimm fairy tales, from Cinderella (Kimmi Johnson Grimes) rising above her modest station to woo a prince (Ralph Meitzler); to Little Red Ridinghood (Giselle Watts) skipping over to Grandma’s house, only to be confronted by the Wolf (Meitzler); to the young Jack (Luis-Pablo Garcia) naively trading his beloved cow for magic beans. It’s all instigated by a witch (Jeni Hacker, magisterial once again, but we’ll circle back to that), who dispatches a childless baker and wife (Ben Liebert and Melissa Whitworth) into the woods to corral four items of value in an effort to reverse a curse and grant them fertility.

I don’t mean to slight the first act of “Into the Woods,” particularly on the production side. Sondheim and his book writer James Lapine outline a potentially exhausting mélange of moving parts, but director Patrick Fitzwater and his imaginative and industrious cast excel in spades. The 90-minute act barely pauses for applause breaks, the action as tight and fluid as an assembly line. From James Mablin’s musical direction to the actors’ sonorous voices, all handle the knotty and unconventional phrasing like the seasoned Sondheim vets that many of them are. There are touches of novel inspiration throughout, such as the witty puppeteer work from Aaron Atkinson as Jack’s cow, Milky White, which breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion.

But the second act, set after the happily-ever-after finale of Act One, is the raison d’être of “Into the Woods,” in which the false premise of everlasting harmony reveals itself to be a mirage. The kingdom is divided, an outside and unseen force is wrecking havoc on the infrastructure in the form of a giant, and previously intoxicating fantasies now assume a hollow aftertaste. The atmosphere is less Walt Disney than it is “The Last of Us” or “Yellowjackets.” Characters expire unceremoniously. Long-buried sins are accounted for. It’s all far from kids’ stuff, being closer in spirit to the grown-up anxieties of Sondheim classics like “Company.”

While in the predestined world of Act I, non-playable characters go through the motions, in Act II they’re forced to make choices, untangle dilemmas, and address the ripple effects of actions perhaps blithely taken. Should we forgive absent parents; should we turn the other cheek? It’s to Fitzwater’s credit that his cast handles these tonal changes with the gravitas they deserve. Sondheim’s songs are still delicate dances of dexterous wordplay, but with the veneer of fantasy stripped away like the bark on the trees surrounding them, the core of a serious drama is exposed.

The linchpin of this transition is Hacker, who in the musical’s early stages, her face hidden behind a monstrous carnival mask, adopts an impish mischievousness and a delirious cackle. By the time we arrive at “Stay With Me” and especially into Act II, her heart-wrenching desperation to protect a child that is gradually slipping from her control is palpable. Hers is the production’s first chink in the armor of fantasy, the first appearance of real blood, sweat and tears. Grimes, as Cinderella; and Whitworth, as the Baker’s Wife, achieve similar levels of nuance and complexity as their tidy fiction unravels, and real-world consequences leave them re-evaluating their status quos.

The production is a tour de force for costume designer Rick Peña, whose contributions range from ravishing ball gowns to paupers’ rags; and for set designer Kelly Tighe, who supplements the familiar framing device of trees bookending the stage with a dense thicket of conifers behind them, creating the illusion of an endless forest.

“Into the Woods” still buckles, every so often, under its enormous weight. I don’t think this is any discredit to Slow Burn; it’s just that at three hours, it’s simply an overlong show. Even the greatest composer in the history of Broadway could use a judicious edit, especially in Act I. But this production is certainly a high point for Slow Burn, with its ultimate message—the need to forge a community anew, through destructive change and hardship—resonating now more than ever.

“Into the Woods” runs through Oct. 29 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $57-$83. Call 954/462-0222, or visit browardcenter.org.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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