Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Into the Woods
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Descendants: The Musical and The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

The Cast
Photo by Quinlyn Ashlock
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods has an excellent blend of both comical and serious moments and a book and score that form one of the cleverest musicals ever written. It's also a show that is incredibly difficult to pull off successfully due to the combination of Sondheim's intricate score and Lapine's well-crafted book, which expertly walk a fine line between comedy and drama. Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's production is quite good, with a talented cast who get the nuance and emotion beneath their fairy tale characters and impressive creative elements.

Sondheim and Lapine have seamlessly woven together familiar fairy tales that we all grew up with, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, into a musical in which their well-known stories all interconnect. Since most of these beloved tales are set in the woods, it makes perfect sense to have all of the characters living in the same place and for their stories to intersect. Sondheim and Lapine added an entirely original fairy tale to the well-known stories that tells of a Baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child. The Witch who lives next door tells them there is a way for their wish to come true by collecting items for a potion. This story sets in motion a plot for the famous fairy tale stories to all come together, since the items the couple need to collect all relate to the other characters.

In addition to the creative way Lapine and Sondheim found to connect the stories, they also created a second act that shows that "happily ever after" may not be all it's cracked up to be. They also use a Narrator who helps move the plot forward and who also gets pulled into the action in the second act. While the first act is humorous, the second turns darker and shows that you clearly have to be careful with what you wish for. They also manage to bring a keen sense of reality to the fairy tale stories, adding further dimension to the usually two-dimensional characters.

Kandyce Hughes' direction makes an interesting choice of having the Narrator played by a boy and not an old man, which was used for the Broadway production, or a middle-aged man which I've seen other theatres use. This production uses a similar approach to what was done for the 2010 Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production in London, with a boy who is lost in the woods after having a family argument. That decision is an interesting choice, though it isn't exactly clear unless you read the program that he is supposed to be a boy who has run away into the woods after having an argument with his father. He is also present during many of the scenes as both a spectator and a participant, but that doesn't quite work since he is supposed to be telling us the story of the show without being a participant in it until he is pulled into the story in the second act. This directorial decision does have a payoff at the end of the show.

Hughes has also added a group of dancers who portray mythical spirits which help to depict a few of the animals and objects in the plot, but they are sometimes overused and distracting, especially in the solo songs for Jack and Little Red Ridinghood. Hughes' staging makes good use of the multi-layered stage with a colorful and creative set she designed with Ally Baumlin. There are many overlapping and intricate parts in Sondheim's score which Hughes, music director Ken Goodenberger, and the cast navigate with ease. Brady Fiscus' lighting design is gorgeous and the sound design by Will Snider is perfect—one of the best I've heard for a DST show in their mainstage space.

The actors who play the six main characters in the show are wonderful. Matthew Harris is funny and warm as the Baker, with good comic timing and a lovely singing voice. His solo "No More" is especially touching. As the Baker's Wife, Linsey Maxson is excellent, with a witty, wise and warm line delivery that adds spark to her comical lines and a beautiful signing voice that soars. Sarah Smith is simply lovely as Cinderella. Her assured line delivery is sweet yet sensible, and her singing voice shines on her songs, including a wonderful version of "On the Steps of the Palace." Alexandra Utpadel has the perfect blend of menace, passion and comedy as the Witch with a pitch perfect singing voice. She also looks stunning in her costumes (Aurelie Flores' designs are exceptional and Utpadel also created the show's hair and make-up designs which are equally as good). As Jack, Bennett Allen Wood has the right combination of exuberance, shyness and naivete that forms a character you love; his solo "Giants in the Sky" is exceptional. Devorah Joyce Coon is excellent as Little Red Ridinghood. Her droll line delivery and facial expressions deliver the right blend of sweetness and sass and her singing voice is clear and bright.

As the two Princes, Jeremy Yampolsky and Rudi Bogojevich are hilarious, with exaggerated accents, condescending tones, and wry facial expressions that add humor to their line delivery. Their duet of "Agony" is a crowd pleaser. Yampolsky also portrays the Wolf and appears to relish playing this delicious role. Grace Feliciano is bright and fun as Rapunzel, Ken Goodenberger strikes the perfect tone for the Mysterious Man that all of the main characters encounter in the woods, and Mary Beth Hollmann is quite good as Jack's Mother. Also, Elliot Noah Thompson is cute and charming as the Narrator, and Blue Madison-Cedillo is sensational voicing the role of Jack's cow Milky White while manipulating the puppet used to portray her. While there are a few individuals in the supporting cast and ensemble who missed a queue on opening night or could use a bit more direction in their portrayals, especially since some of the jokes in Lapine's well-crafted book are rushed or delivered too seriously, they work well together to bring the characters to life.

Into the Woods runs through September 19, 2021, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, visit or call 480-483-1664.

Director/Choreographer: Kandyce Hughes
Music Direction: Ken Goodenberger
Scenic Design: Ally Baumlin, Kandyce Hughes
Prop Master: Nathaniel Coe
Costume Designer: Aurelie Flores
Hair and Makeup Designer: Alexandra Utpadel
Lighting Designer: Brady Fiscus
Sound Designer: Will Snider

Narrator: Elliot Noah Thompson
Cinderella: Sarah Smith
Jack: Bennett Allen Wood
Jack's Mother: Mary Beth Hollmann
The Baker: Matthew Harris
The Baker's Wife: Linsey Maxson
Cinderella's Stepmother: Cindy Covington
Step Sister (Florinda): Drew MacCallum
Step Sister (Lucinda): Kendra Goodenberger
Little Red Ridinghood: Devorah Joyce Coon
The Witch: Alexandra Uptadel
Cinderella's Mother/Giant's Voice: Leah Klein
Wolf/Cinderella's Prince: Jeremy Yampolsky
Rapunzel: Grace Feliciano
Rapunzel's Prince: Rudi Bogojevich
Mysterious Man: Ken Goodenberger
Little Red's Granny: Kelly Swope
The Steward: Nathaniel Coe
Cinderella's Father: Brady Anderson
Milky White: Blue Madison-Cedillo
Mythical Spirits: Nikki di Giorgio, Emily Andersen, Lily Whipple, Allison Martinez, Carley Meier, Bella Swope