Into the Woods is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed musicals of all time, and for good reason: Stephen Sondheim’s intricate lyricism and James Lapine’s witty book tickle audiences of all ages and appeal to both the heart and head. The 5th Avenue Theatre’s rendition of the show allows audiences to appreciate the text’s ingenuity, but some of the magic is unfortunately lost.
Into the Woods is a sophisticated musical comedy that intertwines fairytales to explore the grim realities that follow supposed happy endings. The text manages to balance spectacle and intimacy with its playfully subversive plot and mature themes, but The 5th’s production does not quite succeed on either account. Much of the staging is unimaginative, mostly repeating choices made by many other renditions of the show. With that said, I have also seen productions of the show that have nowhere near as firm of a grasp of its unique tone and dense score, which is a feat for The 5th’s team in and of itself.
There are no trees in sight, with color-changing rods dominating a majority of the set. Scenic designer Lex Marcos and lighting designer Ben Zamora’s heavy use of technology makes the production more modern, but it eliminates some of the show’s charm and warmth. However, the collapse of a staircase halfway through the show cleverly represents the tonal shift between acts and the destruction of the concept of the “happily ever after.”
The minimalist design approach comes off as somewhat cheap rather than artistically compelling since it is not effectively used to support or recontextualize anything thematically. It also makes the production’s moments of pure spectacle offputting (i.e., the abrupt use of pyrotechnics during the Witch’s transformation). Last year, Seattle Rep’s production of Teenage Dick creatively conveyed the protagonist’s panic attack through a sudden burst of confetti. The dissonance between the use of stagecraft and what it was meant to express made the moment visceral and unforgettable. Meanwhile, the flashy elements in Into the Woods exist merely to wow audiences, but they are not used particularly creatively to do so.
The well-dressed opening night audience roared at every moment that approached attempting humor. Many of these jokes would never get laughs in different contexts, but they are overpraised because of Sondheim’s recognition as a genius. When Sondheim’s comedies are experienced without considering the quality of their creator’s canon, many of them are absolutely hilarious, especially Into the Woods, but that does not mean each lyric is worthy of a laugh on its own. While Sondheim’s astounding contributions to musical theater are undeniable, not every aspect of a respected artist’s work or each work itself is worthy of acclaim; you can’t break down Sondheim’s lyrics to letters because every English writer uses the same 26.
Many of the actors lack a strong sense of their characters’ intentions and stakes, particularly during the musical numbers. Instead of diving into the show’s complex narrative, the production is reminiscent of a cabaret, which is not nearly as powerful. In spite of this, local favorite Mari Nelson delivers a tour de force performance as the omnipresent Narrator. The show’s typical casting is rearranged for Nelson to perform a smorgasbord of bit parts, including the Mysterious Man, Cinderella’s Mother, Little Red Ridinghood’s Granny, and the Giant’s Wife. Although her diverse array of roles is impressive, it is her thoughtfully curious attitude embodying the play’s message as she watches over the primary characters that makes her a, if not the, highlight of the production.
Into the Woods is brilliant and The 5th’s production, while flawed, does it justice such that the text can be fully appreciated. However, when a musical is produced so often, that is not enough.
Into The Woods took place at The 5th Avenue Theater on February 10th, 2023 - March 5, 2023. For more information see here.