In Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his lyrics and musings about his work, Stephen Sondheim notes the unlikely genesis for Into the Woods: he and book writer James Lapine had concocted an idea for a TV special mashing up characters from similar comedies (Ralph and Alice Kramden from The Honeymooners, Archie and Edith Bunker from All in the Family) with characters from various cop and medical dramas, using a car accident as the narrative pretext for bringing them all together. When that project (perhaps unsurprisingly) fell apart, they decided to apply the concept of colliding worlds to stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, specifically Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood (here called "Little Red") with the English folktale of Jack and the Beanstalk tossed into the mix. They then invented a childless baker and his wife (a mundane working-class couple, not unlike the Kramdens and Bunkers), whose quest to fulfill a scavenger hunt in order to overcome a witch's curse on their fecundity intersects with the fairy-tale foursome.
Though the show famously cautions "Children Will Listen," Gary Griffin's in-the-round staging for Writers Theatre makes it clear that it's not the kids who need to be reminded of the unintended consequences of words and deeds of expedient self-interest. It's the grown-ups.
As many have noted since the show's 1987 Broadway premiere, Into the Woods isn't a bucolic departure from Sondheim's enduring obsessions about adult life, but a poignant storybook enhancement of them—the romantic allure of the past (Merrily We Roll Along), the conflict between independence and marriage (Company), the ravages of vengeance (Sweeney Todd), and of course, the magical promise of romance in nature (A Little Night Music). But as Griffin's nearly note-perfect production makes clear, it's not the fracturing of the fairy tales that matters. It's what we do and who we become (and what we do pretty much defines us, for better or worse) once we know the happy ending is out of reach. "Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor," Cinderella (Ximone Rose) observes as she tries to decide whether or not she wants to be "caught" by the prince. And as her prince's infidelity in the second act proves, getting what you think you want may not be the same as getting what you need.
By staging this show in the round, Griffin (whose past Sondheim productions at Chicago Shakespeare still send disciples into rapturous reminiscence) brings us all in as coconspirators of sorts. The actors enter and exit from aisles around us, and Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole) warbles from her "tower" from among the audience. We're implicated in what happens to them in a way that a proscenium staging wouldn't provide, and in a way that underscores both the circularity of fate and the communal assertions of the soaring "No One Is Alone." The three-piece band, led by pianist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster (musical director Matt Deitchman provided new orchestrations for piano, percussion, and winds, nicely rendered in Christopher M. LaPorte's sound design), are perched underneath a surrealist treelike structure (designed by Scott Davis) interspersed with smashed keyboards that suggest—perhaps a bit too obviously—that what we're going to hear won't be exactly like past adventures in this particular patch of musical-theater wilderness.
Most importantly, Griffin keeps the farcical elements of the first act and the darker existential quandaries of the second in balance, and we see the roots of the latter winding through the former. Little Red (Lucy Godínez) has an unapologetic appetite, much like the Wolf (Matt Edmonds) she gleefully dispatches, but when the Giant's Wife returns in search of Jack (Ben Barker), the slayer of her husband, the notion of killing monsters doesn't feel quite so satisfying, or final.
The cast is mind-blowingly good, but special attention must be paid to Bethany Thomas's Witch, who turns "Stay With Me" into a fierce, heartrending ode to mother love (even if her path to motherhood involves kidnapping), and whose transformation from Halloween crone to glam siren in Mara Blumenfeld's clever costumes is entrancing. Michael Mahler and Brianna Borger as the Baker and the Baker's Wife subtly show how wistfulness curdles into resentment in long-term relationships. Alex Benoit and Ryan McBride, the princes to Rapunzel and Cinders, respectively, provide all the self-satisfied comic relief one could want as upper-class twits.
There is a moment at the very end that veers too closely to the sentimentality Griffin otherwise avoids in this rich and rewarding production, filled with wise, witty, and often wrenching reminders that the stories we tell ourselves (never mind the ones we tell the kids) can deceive as well as nourish. v