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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Into the Woods at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Casts a Spell of Uneven Enchantment

Into the Woods
Lisa Estridge and
Anne Eisendrath

One of Stephen Sondheim's most accessible, crowd pleasing and frequently staged musicals, Into the Woods arrived at the 5th Avenue Theatre last week in time for Halloween. A slew of Seattle's top notch character actor/singers, augmented by a few new faces and a few from out of town, deliver mostly solid performances as the tale of what happens after happily ever after plays out. But Mark Waldrop's uneven and largely surface level direction keeps the show from really enchanting to its maximum potential, while on the visual side set designer Todd Edward Ivins has created a forest that seems more viny than woodsy and squanders a lot of good ideas by stopping short of seeing them through. A largely ideal cast and strong musical direction by Ian Eisendrath are the elements that really payoff in the production, and ultimately justify a passing grade for the show.

The funny, lighter-hued first act of Into the Woods works best in the 5th's production. After the lengthy and jauntily paced set-up of the story which unites characters from "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel," "Cinderella" and "Little Red Ridinghood" on their respective quests for their hearts desires, there are several standout performances and musical numbers. Ireland Woods, an old soul in a fifth-grader's body, does amazingly well by the musical and lyrical intricacies of "I Know Things Now" after her encounter with the Wolf. Eric Ankrim makes a most agreeably doltish Jack, and sings one of the show's loveliest and most underrated songs, "Giants in the Sky," with clarity and exuberant fervor. Lisa Estridge mines a load of laughs in her rap number and throughout act one as the crone of a Witch who keeps Rapunzel (a vivacious and lilting-voiced Anne Eisendrath) locked in the tower, and their rendition of the "Our Little World" duet makes this number added to the show since its West End run really work for me, rather than seeming a rather superfluous inclusion.

The comic highlight of act one, Sondheim's wickedly funny "Agony" for Cinderella and Rapunzel's princes, receives a grandly goofy delivery by Michael Hunsaker as the former and Logan Benedict as the latter (though somehow Hunsaker's take on the Wolf in "Hello, Little Girl" really misses the mark). Billie Wildrick's Cinderella is totally satisfying as she makes the journey from scullery wench to princess, and she sparkles on her solo "On the Steps of the Palace." Leslie Law as the Baker's Wife gives one of the richest and most detailed performances in the show. Her scenes with Wildrick are perhaps the best acted in the production, even when the Baker's Wife is just listening to Cinderella. Yet, as her first duet says, "It Takes Two," and though physically right, Bob De Dea in the crucial role of the Baker merely seems to be going through the paces, maintaining a vaguely distracted air throughout the production, but never emotionally invested in his character.

Act two, showing the cost and ramifications of getting your heart desire, contains several deaths (most of them crushed by the Giant's wife, avenging her husband). The maternal characters range from Jack's mother to the distracted Rapunzel (mother of twins), to Little Red's Granny, and most affectingly the Baker's Wife (who had been blessed with a child at the end of act one). Law has another standout moment in her solo vocal "Moments in the Wood" and a touching return as a spirit in the show's closing scene. Hunsaker and Benedict's Princes have move on in the funny "Agony" reprise to pursuing two other fairy tale princesses, namely Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Estridge's witch, who gained beauty but lost her powers in act one has a powerful last hurrah in "The Last Midnight." Wildrick, Ankrim, De Dea and child actress Woods blend their voices beautifully on the plaintive and moving "No One is Alone," and the entire ensemble soars on the near closing "Children Will Listen". In less musically featured turns, Krista Severeid and Darla Cardwell contrast nicely as the Wicked Stepsisters, Eric Brotherson is a stitch concealed by a cow costume as Jack's "pet" Milky White, and Broadway veteran Allen Fitzpatrick makes a drily witty narrator and a wily Mysterious Man (aka Rapunzel and the Baker's supposed dead father).

Tom Sturge has designed a wide gamut of appropriate lighting palettes, while Costume Coordinator Lynda Salsbury outfits everyone with storybook splendor, save a rather odd looking gown for the transformed Witch.

This Into the Woods might thrill a newcomer to the show, which many a 5th Avenue audience might well be. For the rest of us, it is a trip down a pleasantly familiar path which seemed a bit more magical when we wandered down it in the past. Into the Woods runs through November 10, 2007 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's website at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for further details.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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