When the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical “Into the Woods” arrived on Broadway in 1987, it offered a then-novelty: A mash-up of multiple fairy tales and an exploration of what happens after “ever after.” The first act wove together the familiar stories of Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella while the second took a darker look at the repercussions of stealing from a giant, killing a wolf, and marrying a prince one barely knows.
In the subsequent decades, though, it’s become commonplace to look beyond the surface of classic stories. Fairy tales are now recombined, reimagined, and processed through the cultural Cuisinart on a regular basis, from “Shrek” to TV’s “Grimm.” It’s gotten to a point where simple, single-story fairy tales seem, well, simple.
“Into the Woods” itself has gone through something of a conversion, entering the mainstream through a big-budget Hollywood film. It’s become a staple in regional theaters, trusting that an audience lured in by the promise of familiar tales won’t get turned off completely when things get real.
Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre isn’t usually the place to find complex motivations and characters dealing with loss and death. But that’s the core of what happens when audiences return from their dessert-fueled intermission for the second act of “Into the Woods” (through Nov. 20). What seemed a lark turns into a who-will-survive tale where characters struggle with finding the motivation to join together to defeat an enemy in a morally complex world.
As impressively sung as the first act was on the B&B stage, the laughs didn’t always land and some of the joy of the material seemed missing. The opening sequence, in which the links between all of the characters—including the original creation of a Baker and his wife cursed into childlessness—are established, felt rushed and under-designed. Feeling more like a recap of previous episodes, it seemed more intent on speed than anchoring newcomers into this fantasy world.
However, once the characters literally headed into the woods, the material and cast began to click. Sarah Hund (as the Witch) delivered an aching “Stay with Me” to the daughter, Rapunzel, who rejected her. B&B newcomer Meaghan Sands (as the Baker’s Wife) charmingly tried to rationalize her infidelity via “Moments in the Woods.” And Don Farrell (as the Baker) and James Anthony (as the Mysterious Man) brought it all together in a beautifully sung—and smartly, minimally staged—“No More.” The latter song may surprise those who have only seen the film—it was cut out, as was the Mysterious Man character, and it adds an enormous amount of emotional gravitas to the stage version.
After my eighth journey into Sondheim and Lapine's woods, I emerged even more impressed with the durability of their creation.
And also impressed—and pleased—that Beef & Boards is willing to serve more than just theatrical comfort food.