Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Into the Woods
Or maybe this production at the New Jewish Theatre (NJT) in St. Louis is really just some exceedingly elaborate "large language model" for building all of Western civilization, in the supercomputer simulation we may be living through right now–in which you observe a bunch of people on stage you thought you knew fairly well, who are getting together for their usual reasons. But finding they can't stop being deeply troubled over their own improbable existence. Still, just run the program (the age-old stories) and you can learn how to navigate almost any human interaction with aplomb.
And Into the Woods looks great this time out, even though the show reminds us there are still gaping holes in all the underlying assumptions we have about our own mythologies. But those holes in the age-old stories in Lapine's book pulse with Sondheim's ringing, complex, and heartfelt songs, calming the spirits and steadying us in life's mysteries. The musical won Tony Awards for its score and book, and is a "high mass" of the collective subconscious, boasting new clarity under the Einsteinian direction of Robert Quinlan. Thanks to him, in spite of Sondheim's occasionally chilly brilliance, these particular Woods are warm, immersive, and immediate.
The two act show, running two-hours and forty-five minute, with one 15-minute intermission, is performed in the round, amidst twisted, alien-looking trees that glide out across the set (very nicely designed by C. Otis Sweezey) in what becomes a series of large clearings in a very philosophical forest, right there in our laps. It's beautiful and challenging, with eye-catching costumes–as always–by Michele Friedman Siler. Throughout, this Into the Woods is full of engaging, jokey irony and bittersweet reconciliations.
The very puzzled Kevin O'Brien and Molly Wennstrom are perfectly splendid as the Baker and his Wife, so intent on having a child that they undertake a quest laid out by a witch in the forest played by chameleonic Sarah Gene Dowling. Larry D. Pry, who worked for years behind the scenes at the Muny Opera, serves as a warm and pleasing Narrator. And he's the show's music director, in an unobtrusive little three-piece band (that sounds much more substantial) off to one corner. Choreographer Ellen Isom keeps all her non-dancers reasonably light on their feet.
But here's where you start to notice the differences. There are an unusually large number of surprisingly simple, graceful tableaux, where many of the lilting songs are beautifully acted out. NJT Artistic Director Rebekah Scallet attributes this wealth of intimate staging in song to director Quinlan and choreographer Isom. And in the book scenes, Quinlan often adds in the rhythm of a courtroom drama, his actors pacing down their adversaries like wily lawyers closing in for the kill.
This, in turn, prompts the other storybook people (like witnesses on the stand) to stammer and confabulate, and churn out new riddles and new bedtime stories to escape each of their diabolical fates, by babbling out a ghastly cascade of entirely new narratives. Maybe all our fables stem from uncomfortable questioning.
But it's like watching conspiracy theories being churned out by an over-caffeinated troll farm (though there are surprisingly no trolls in this meta-story). All because conflict, tension, and doubt are measured out in deliberate steps. Maybe during one performance, one of the "witnesses" could break down sobbing, and music director Pry could tap his piano with a judge's gavel to halt the cross-examination.
The Baker and his Wife encounter the usual suspects. Aliyah Jacobs is lots of fun as Little Red Riding Hood, dogged by a big bad wolf (the very iconic Phil Leveling, who bedevils much of the cast in his various guises). Matthew Cox is winning as Jack (later of beanstalk fame), with his white cow lovingly operated by puppeteer Matt Billings (who is also quite admirable as one of the storybook princes). Sarah Wilkinson is a sublimely silvery-voiced Rapunzel. She and ebullient Kevin Corpuz (elsewhere a professional boy-toy of a prince) play wicked step-sisters to Kristen Joy Lintvedt's beautiful Cinderella. She's Broadway-ready: cloaked in a hushed stage presence, a hi-def stillness, wherever she goes.
Victoria Pines is pensive and intriguing as Jack's mother. And the voice of Nisi Sturgis becomes an unseen giant who follows Jack down from the sky, stomping out across the land in search of the troublesome boy. The very nice "giant" sound effects are designed by Amanda Werre. And the "magic beans" get an unexpected lighting "special" late in the action, thanks to Jayson M. Lawshee. The light plot is fine, but might benefit from the addition of colorful spills and fills.
I thought I'd dread the whole thing. It's been so busy, after COVID-19, with all kinds of theatre jammed in between the holidays, to try to recoup the lost box office from the 2020 season and beyond. And it's the second time this year I've seen this monster of a musical. But it's remarkably intriguing and fresh, in ways both large and small.
Happy theater-puzzling in 2024!
Into the Woods runs through December 17, 2023, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.