Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Into the WoodsGuthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of bull-jean/we wake, Jersey Boys, and sTootsie

Madeline Trumble, Robert Knight, and Suzie Juul
Photo by Dan Norman
It makes sense that Stephen Sondheim was involved with developing the plot of Into the Woods, joining bookwriter James Lapine in pulling it off with such great success. The late, great composer and lyricist was known to have both a love and mastery of puzzles. Into the Woods is constructed like a puzzle, built with the intricate intersection of narrative pieces to create a cohesive and ingenious whole. Because at least its first act is a mash-up of several beloved fairy tales, along with a new fairy tale, Into the Woods is often viewed as a good show for young audiences, and therefore has been staged by many schools, and youth theaters–often only including the sunnier first act and omitting the second act in which things become decidedly darker. The fact is that Into the Woods is very much a musical for adults.

The Guthrie has returned to its pre-COVID practice of closing its season in the Wurtele Thrust Stage with a popular musical and has chosen Into the Woods as this season's offering. As we've come to expect, the Guthrie has bestowed elaborate costumes and stunning scenic elements upon this production. There is also the gift of a twelve-member on-stage orchestra led by music director Denise Prosek beautifully playing Sondheim's lush score, a score that runs the gamut from spritely tunes which can inspire even this senior citizen to go skipping out of the theater, to wistful expressions of hope, to heartfelt melancholy that touch usually protected places in the core of our being.

The old tales incorporated into Into the Woods are "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel." The newly created story is about a humble Baker and his Wife who long to have a child. They learn that when the Baker was a young boy his father angered a witch who then put a curse on the family line, making the Baker impotent. However, the witch is willing–for reasons of her own–to reverse the curse if the couple can, before the next three midnights pass, bring her four specific items, all of which can be found in the woods. It is the pursuit of these items that causes their journey to cross with the other stories. Though things are touch and go, the Baker and Wife succeed, as do the heroes and heroines of the other tales, leading to a happily ever after.

But that is only Act One. In Act Two, this motley group discovers that having your wishes granted does not always bring the happiness you thought it would, and that deeds done to make those wishes come true have consequences. It is at this juncture that the adult themes of Into the Woods emerge, dealing with such topics as justice and retribution, loss of loved ones, gaining the empathy to see pain suffered by others through their eyes, giving up personal gain to find strength in community, adultery, and several brutal (though not graphically depicted) deaths. The resolution is eloquently expressed by Cinderella, speaking to her Prince: "My father's house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between."

The Guthrie's production is directed by Sarna Lapine, niece of James Lapine (who also directed the original Broadway production), so one might imagine she has access to some of the creators' vision for the show. Ms. Lapine directed a 2017 Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George, the Sondheim and Lapine show that opened on Broadway in 1984, preceding Into the Woods by three years. Now taking on Into the Woods, she displays a sure feel for the show's elements, and brings to the fore the theme of moving from pursuit of individual goals to the development of a compassionate community able to solve existential threats, recognizing that pitfalls, false starts and sacrifices occur in pursuit of a greater good. In some ways it is a hard-nosed lesson, and also one very easy to relate to the world as it is today. To underscore this perspective, the scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams has the raised thrust stage rimmed by what look like layers of scorched earth, and the space separating the playing area and the orchestra is occupied by trees that, rather than forming a thick forest, seem thinned out by blight, fires or drought.

There are twenty-two speaking parts in Into the Woods–technically, one of those parts is a "mooing" rather than speaking part, Milky White, the cow Jack trades for magic beans that spur the growth of a beanstalk that reaches clear up to the realm of giants. Also, one character is unseen but has a very significant presence by way of its booming offstage voice. Some of these roles are relatively small, but each character has a distinct personality and contributes in some way to the narrative. With several roles double-cast, the company is composed of sixteen actors, ten of whom are making their Guthrie debuts, and six of those their Twin Cities debut.

At the center of the narrative, the Baker and Baker's Wife's wish for a child courses through the entire first act and provokes the calamities of the second act. Robert Knight gives a bravura performance as the Baker, showing us this man's growth from indecisive fumbler, through a journey that includes great disillusionment and loss, to finally respond to the need for leadership, generosity and hope. Knight's voice is a gift, soaring especially in "No More" and "No One Is Alone." As the Baker's Wife, Madeline Trumble has a luminous presence, offering a cheerier take on a role that often casts a nettled outlook on life. Trumble has a lovely voice and gives a superb delivery of "Moments in the Woods," as she makes a reckoning between her values and desires.

Emily Tyra is winning as Cinderella, exhibiting resourcefulness to make her wish come true, followed by confusion when she realizes all the baggage that comes with it. Her musings over what to do "On the Steps of the Palace" is marvelously performed.

The roles of Narrator and Mysterious Man (usually, though not always, played by the same actor) here go to Regina Marie Williams. Her commanding stage presence makes these roles more central to the narrative arc then I perceived them to be in the past. She joins Knight in the deeply moving "No More," and together they deliver a perfect take.

Others giving winning performances include Trevor James, a standout as earnest but dim Jack and brimming with exuberance in "Giants in the Sky"; Suzie Juul, dishing out brio as Little Red Riding Hood, and aptly hedging her encounter with the Wolf in "I Know Things Now"; Sasha Andreev both as the Wolf (who proffers a delightfully cunning "Hello, Little Girl") and as Rapunzel's Prince; and Kim Kivens as Jack's exasperated mother. John Yi is hilarious as Milky White, doing wonders with his eyes, though less credible as Cinderella's charming but philandering Prince. Oh, and that supremely fearsome voice of an infuriated giant belongs to Greta Oglesby, who some years back gave a great performance as the Witch in Theatre Latté Da's Into the Woods..

Here, the Witch is played by Broadway actor Lisa Howard. Howard has excellent delivery in the Witch's extended tongue-twisting section of the musical prologue, the yearning "Stay with Me," and especially the passionate denouncement of her "nice" neighbors in "Last Midnight." Between musical numbers, though, she comes across less as a person with fearsome abilities and more as a crabby next-door neighbor. What most hampers her performance, though, (spoiler alert) is her costuming before and after she transforms from a wizened crone into a beautiful and glamorously dressed woman. The "after" costume is, to put it bluntly, ugly. Colorful, yes, but ugly. The horns atop her head remain. Her hands and arms are covered in an ashy black substance. All told, it is not a becoming look, and undermines the premise that she achieved her wish, which was to restore her lost beauty.

Aside from the peculiarly unappealing outfit for the would-be glamorized witch, the costumes designed by Valérie Thérèse Bart are inventive, colorful and apt. I was especially taken by the Wolf, who wears a helmet arching over the actor's head to define his snout, with just a tuft of fur spilling out from a vest worn with no shirt, which suggests a terribly hirsute creature within. Little Red Riding Hood's cape has a Nordic pattern woven by her Granny, while the rest of her garb has the look of a contemporary adolescent, suggesting a generational divide. This is also seen in Jack's wry outfit change after he acquires wealth from the Giant's golden-egg laying hen.

Donald Holder's lighting design is splendid, with precise spotting to follow the ever-shifting points to which our attention is drawn on the large thrust stage, and together with Beth Lake's expert sound design, creates the scarifying effects of a giant trampling the Earth.

I have lost count of the number of productions of Into the Woods I have seen. It is one of my favorite shows. The brilliance of its book and melodic beauty of its score win the day out the gate, and the Guthrie's production provides an abundance of enhancements in performance and design that raise it to the heights. Whether seen at the time of its 1987 Broadway bow, when its narrative arc was thought to reflect the ravishment of the AIDS epidemic, or today, when that same arc can easily be related to environmental degradation, its consequences in the form of climate change, and the shared commitment needed if we are to prevail, it always speaks to the most pressing of issues, while telling a delightfully droll story. As the Witch commands the Baker and his Wife: "Go to the Woods!"

Into the Woods runs through August 13, 2023, at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $36 to $94. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) $3 - $6 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15-30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday evenings; $25 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: James Lapine; Director: Sarna Lapine; Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Scenic Design: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Costume Design: Valérie Thérèse Bart; Lighting Design: Donald Holden; Sound Design: Beth Lake; Adapting Orchestrator: Fred Lassen; Copyist: Jason Hansen; Assistant Music Director: Kathryn Brown; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Intimacy: Alli St. John; Resident Dramaturg; Carla Steen; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Managers: Matthew Meeks, Nate Stanger; Assistant Director: Derek Priestly; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.

Cast: Sasha Andreev (Wolf/Rapunzel's Prince), Cat Brindisi (Florinda), Anna Hashizume (Cinderella's Mother/Rapunzel), Lisa Howard (Witch), Trevor James (Jack), Suzie Juul (Little Red Riding Hood), Kim Kivens (Jack's Mother/Granny), Robert Knight (Baker), Greta Oglesby (Voice of the Giant), Kym Chambers Otto (Cinderella's Stepmother), Madeline Trumble (Baker's Wife), Emily Tyra (Cinderella), Regina Marie Williams (Narrator/Mysterious Man), Olivia Wilusz (Lucinda), Max Wojtanowicz (Cinderella's Father/Steward), John Yi (Milky White/Cinderella's Prince).