Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured (l-r): Ryan Stajmiger, Kate Staiger, and Ethan Warren. Photo courtesy of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre.
By Bec Willett
Broadway in 1987, West End in 1990, Broadway again in 2002, and a Disney film in 2014. Clearly, INTO THE WOODS is a prolific musical in the western world. Surely part of the reason is that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have taken our cultural knowledge of fairytale characters and their stories – Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella – and recontextualized them and in doing so rid them of their pat answers in favor of a harsher and more relatable reality. Yet this popularity also means pressure on theaters that want to produce this musical without the Broadway budget. There seems to be two choices: either reflect the original production as best they can or make an entirely new one. In Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s production of INTO THE WOODS director Robin M. Hughes has attempted to choose both.
Much of the cast and the direction of this production’s performances reflect the tone of the original Broadway run. It may not be the most innovative approach, but it makes for an enjoyable experience, allowing the story to move forward at a consistent pace so that any weaknesses are skimmed over rather than sat in. Of note is the all-around excellence of the vocals, especially from leading women Nicole Arnold as Cinderella, Anna Segatti as Little Red Riding Hood, Kelsey Burd as the Witch, and Kate Staiger as the Baker’s Wife. Unfortunately, the acting doesn’t reflect the same consistency of technique so that some of the storylines suffer from shallow characterization. When the vocals are matched by clear intention and a thoughtful arc, we are privy to moments of brilliance – such as with the comic timing of the princely duo Alexander Johnson and Benjamin Klein in their rendition of “Agony,” and Ryan Stajmiger as an earthy, all-round good guy Baker who brings a groundedness not present in the other performances.
Where there is polish in the performances, there is also ambiguity of intention in the design, and this somewhat obscures the production’s vision. This is exemplified in the costume design. Whereas the first act is costumed similarly in tone to the original production, the second takes a completely different tack, the costumes now in contemporary dress. Red Riding Hood’s cloak has been swapped for a Bad Wolf tee and a frequently-checked red cellphone, the Baker’s baby is now wheeled in a stroller, and the Prince’s gilded coat has been traded in for a leather jacket, man bun and Instagram account. It’s an evocative choice that drew the characters closer and could have made for a bold production if continued throughout – but it wasn’t. Instead, just as with some of the lighting choices, it stood alone as an addendum rather than part of a cohesive vision. More diverse casting would also have been a welcome addition to the greater whole.
Metropolis’ INTO THE WOODS makes for an enjoyable production with some interesting choices. However, when it comes to escaping the giants of its past, it only gets away partially unscathed.
INTO THE WOODS runs through November 4th. For more information visit metropolisarts.com.