Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Into the Woods
Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Gil's review of Xanadu

Gracie Gamble, Karissa Anderson-Self,
Thomas Wilson, and Joseph Sullivan

Photo by Justin McBride
The combined genius of composer Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter James Lapine created Into the Woods, which I believe is one of the cleverest musicals ever written. As they seamlessly weave together familiar fairy tales and characters into an overlapping story, Sondheim and Lapine also show us that you must be careful what you wish for, as not all fairy tales have happy endings. With just a few small shortcomings, Mesa Encore Theatre presents a solid production of this Tony-winning musical, featuring beautiful creative elements and an excellent cast who derive funny and emotionally rich performances.

Sondheim and Lapine won Tony Awards for their score and book, and the plot combines several classic fairy tale stories with an original tale about a baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child. The witch who lives next door informs them that she placed a curse on their family and that is why they are unable to have a child but also tells them what they need to do if they wish to have the curse reversed: bring her four specific items by midnight in three days time. So, the baker and his wife set off into the woods to find the items and along the way encounter Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, and Jack (of "Jack and the Beanstalk").

Sondheim and Lapine use the woods as a way to connect all of these stories, since most of them have scenes that are set there, so it's easy to imagine that the well-known tales all happened in the same place. Combining the familiar stories into one often humorous adventure is a brilliant move, but Sondheim and Lapine also created an emotionally rich second act that shows how wishes and spells, and the notion of living "happily ever after," can also have serious repercussions.

The combination of Sondheim's well-crafted lyrics, featuring some of his best intricate, humorous rhyme schemes that have an emotional bite, and Lapine's funny and touching dialogue results in three-dimensional fairy-tale characters and situations. It's easy to see how they beat out the score and book of The Phantom of the Opera for the Best Score and Best Book Tonys that year. MET is presenting the version of the show that incorporates a few changes Lapine and Sondheim made for the 2002 Broadway revival as well as the song "Our Little World" that Sondheim wrote for the original London production of the show. These slight additions add some nice added depth to the characters.

The cast is just about perfect, though the jokes in the humorous lyrics and comical dialogue don't all land due to uneven comic timing and direction. Thomas Wilson and Lindsay Decoste are very likable and endearing as the Baker and his Wife. They have rich signing voices and create characters the audience can care about. As Cinderella, Karissa Anderson-Self is charming and simply delightful, delivering a perfect version of her song "On the Steps of the Palace." As the Witch, Irma Gloria has a firm grasp on this unconventional character with a nice blend of a menacing woman and a comical enchantress. With a perfect droll line delivery that makes every joke land and a bright and sunny disposition, Gracie Gamble delivers one of the best performances of Little Red Ridinghood in the dozens of productions of this show I've seen. As Jack, Joseph Sullivan is appropriately bright, good natured and a little bit dim. His solo, "Giants in the Sky," is well sung and full of energy.

As the two Princes, Tom Mangum and Austin Stuart are delightful, using affected accents and gestures to depict their royal class. Magnum also delivers his lines with the right condescending tone that gets some nice laughs. Their duet, "Agony," is a crowd pleaser. With rich coming timing, Sara Bruton is perfect as Jack's Mother. Joe Musil is fine as the Narrator but does better as the Mysterious Man the characters meet in the woods. Alicia Ferrin, as Rapunzel, and Carla Balk Casanova, playing few supporting characters, provide nice support. And Gwendolyn Selfridge is completely endearing as Jack's cow, Milky White.

Director Rita Liegl incorporates many original moments, both comical and serious, into the production and makes good use of the entire stage as well as a few areas off to the sides in the auditorium, ensuring the pace is brisk and never falters. However, some of the humorous lines and lyrics are delivered too seriously or rushed too quickly so they don't land and some of the scenes are too busily directed, thus losing their impact. This is most notable in several act-one songs, including "Hello, Little Girl," "Giants in the Sky," and "Agony," where there is so much movement given to the characters, which often detracts from the lyrics. Lapine's script and Sondheim's lyrics are inherently funny if delivered correctly, and excessive staging draws attention away from the words. Liegl also gives the two wolves guitars to play in their song, which seems an odd choice that is never fully incorporated into the piece, and its purpose is lost. Fortunately, just about every other song, especially the ones in the second act, are staged so effectively that they perfectly get across their humor and pathos.

Sondheim's score features some of his best ballads, including "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen," with many intricate and overlapping parts and music director Lorenzo Slavin does an exceptional job with the small onstage band, who sound fantastic, and the large cast, who never miss a beat. Stephanie "Tippi" Hart's choreography is fairly simple but works and is danced well by the cast. Ben Liegl and Rita Liegl's set design uses just a movable set element and large columns that are lit beautifully by lighting designer Stacey Walston to resemble trees to depict the various scenes in the woods. Cheyenne Alissa Phillips' costumes and Juliana Jackson's hair and make-up designs bring these characters to life with colorful and imaginative touches. There were several missed lighting cues and sound issues at the opening night performance I attended but I'm hopeful those will be ironed out after a few more performances.

Into the Woods is a musical with several important messages beneath its comical and fantasy filled exterior. While I have a few small quibbles, Mesa Encore Theatre's production has a very good cast who effectively deliver these important life lessons and fairly impressive creative aspects which make for an enchanting, witty, and often moving journey of one of the most creative and ingenious musicals ever.

Into the Woods runs through September 22, 2019, at Mesa Encore Theatre, Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. Tickets and information on upcoming shows can be found by calling 480-644-6500 or visiting

Director: Rita Liegl
Music Director: Lorenzo Slavin
Choreographer: Stephanie "Tippi" Hart
Stage Manager: Dylan Prentis
Set Designer: Ben Liegl & Rita Liegl
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Sound Designer: Justin Anderson
Properties: Denise and Madison Desoto
Costume Design: Cheyenne Alissa Phillips
Hair/Make-Up: Juliana Jackson

Narrator/Mysterious Man: Joe Musil
Cinderella: Karissa Anderson-Self
Jack: Joseph Sullivan
Jack's Mother: Sara Bruton
Baker: Thomas Wilson
Baker's Wife: Lindsay Decoste
Cinderella's Stepmother: Elizabeth Bridgewater
Florinda: Brianne Gobeski
Lucinda: Lacey Dixon
Cinderella's Father: Jim Fountain
Little Red Ridinghood: Gracie Gamble
Witch: Irma Gloria
Cinderella's Mother: Kathryn Katsikis
Cinderella's Prince/Wolf #1: Tom Mangum
Rapunzel's Prince/Wolf #2: Austin Stuart
Granny/Giant: Carla Balk Casanova
Rapunzel: Alicia Ferrin
Steward: Meish Roundy
Milky-White: Gwendolyn Selfridge
Featured Dancer: Hillary Low
Featured Dancer: Carah Mollerup
Featured Dancer: Julia Jordan