Time to return, very enthusiastically, “Into the Woods”

(from left) Paramount Theatre’s Into the Woods features Stephen Schellhardt as the Baker, Will Koski as Jack, Natalie Weiss as the Witch, Hannah Louise Fernandes as Cinderella and Lucy Panush as Little Red Riding Hood. Jim Corti and Trent Stork co-direct Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s brilliant reimagining of the Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Performances are February 1-March 19, 2023, at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora. Tickets: paramountaurora.com or (630) 896-6666. Credit: Liz Lauren

The second you walk into the Paramount Theatre to see its production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, you are transported by Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s brilliant set directly into the titular forest. Huge trees, leaf-covered paths, floral bowers, crumbling towers, and a clear sense, further propelled by José Santiago’s soft lighting and Adam Rosenthal’s gentle forest sounds, of being not only outdoors but in some magical place, make for possibly the most spectacular set ever for this simultaneously whimsical and provocative musical. Sondheim and book writer James Lapine, having conceived of this marriage of convenience between the fairy tales of children and the deep concerns and problems of adults, would undoubtedly be happy to witness this production by the area’s most successful musical theatre.

That first impression is fully realized by co-directors Jim Corti and Trent Stork, aided by a lush sixteen-piece orchestra conducted by Kory Danielson and a gifted cast that enthusiastically inhabits characters both from fairy tales (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack, a Witch, Little Red Riding Hood) and wholly invented (a Baker and his Wife, a Mysterious Man), bringing them together in a brutal Brothers Grimm world where actions have consequences. (Lapine’s book even uses the original, far more horrific, version of the Cinderella story in which the Stepmother cuts off parts of her daughters’ feet to try to fit in the shoe. It also goes meta at one point in which the other characters suddenly acknowledge that Larry Yando’s narrator is telling their story, which is bad news for that character.)

Into the Woods, arguably Sondheim’s most accessible musical, spends its first act telling a complicated, conflated story that includes all of the familiar characters blended into the original tale of the baker and wife trying to overturn a witch’s curse and conceive a child by finding objects in the woods. (Cinderella’s shoe, Jack’s cow, and Little Red’s signature cape are among them.) The usual description of the musical is that Act One is Fairy Tales and Act Two is What Happens After “Happily Ever After.” It’s certainly true that Act Two is much darker and more realistic—well, as realistic as you can get when your antagonist is an angry Giant. But what is often overlooked is how dark some of those original tales get: not just Cinderella, but all of them. The Baker (replacing the usual hunter) cuts both Little Red and her Granny free from inside a Wolf’s stomach, a Wolf who (standing in for more conventional dangers to young women) comes there because he leeringly and creepily hungers for the “utter perfection, one brittle, one supple” of consuming both of them. (Rapunzel spends most of the first act locked in a tower by her Witch “mother” to protect her from “what’s out there in the world,” yet another clear reflection of the vulnerability of innocents.)

That these storylines can claim to end “happily ever after” is automatically belied by the bloody feet of the Stepsisters, the horrific death of the Giant, the blinding of several characters, and the ugliness (though it is mostly played for laughs) of what happens to Little Red. No wonder, as the second act shows us, there is a price to pay for such “happiness.” In that act, a second giant—the widow of the first—comes down a second beanstalk to exact revenge from Jack for her husband’s death, and in doing so wreaks havoc on woods, towns, castles, and whatever else is in her nearsighted way. (This production forgoes the usual giant spectacles at the end, but it is not really a loss, as that purely comic element would distract from the emotional conclusion.)

As the Baker and his Wife, tasked with tying all of these disparate seams together, Stephen Schellhardt and Sarah Bockel are wonderful, first as the objects of unjust Fate and later as the characters who, searching to change that Fate, succumb to the temptations to lie, steal, and cheat to make it happen. (When Milky White, memorably portrayed by Adam Fane and a cleverly constructed puppet designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, dies, they even try to pass off a flour-covered brown cow as their prize. Fortunately, the Witch can resurrect the deceased animal.) When these morally compromised characters are at the center of the story, it takes some clever writing and brilliant performances to help the audience to overlook their issues.

These faults, at least for the Wife, don’t end at Happily Ever After. In Act Two, she has a (definitely foreshadowed) “moment in the woods” with Cinderella’s Prince, who is haughtily and comically portrayed by Alex Syiek—also the Wolf—and who teams up with Devin DeSantis as Rapunzel’s Prince in the single best “Agony” I have ever seen, not to mention the most comically ludicrous pronunciation of a one-syllable word I’ve ever heard. Both of the actors make Casey Alfonso’s choreography absolutely hilarious. However, even though the self-centered Prince quickly moves on from her and she almost as quickly realizes that their brief tryst means nothing compared to love and family, she must pay the price in the suddenly moral universe she inhabits. (Bockel’s movements and vocal styling comically exaggerate her mental and physical sins and, because in general the Wife is a much more realistic character than the Prince who “was raised to be charming, not sincere,” we blame her more than him for it. Of course, though, in the Act Two woods, his infidelity is witnessed and he loses his new wife because of it.)

As Cinderella, Hannah Louise Fernandes brings a quiet complacency to her character’s suffering—first at the hands of her stepfamily and then at the hands of Fate. Her rendition of the monologue “On the Steps of the Palace,” in which the wanna-be princess, unsure of how to proceed, decides “not to decide” and instead leaves her shoe as a clue allowing the Prince to find her if he chooses to, is plaintive and introspective. Fernandes’ most powerful emotional outburst is saved for the discovery that her grandmother’s grave has been devastated by the Giant. Cinderella’s connections to the living are nothing compared to the one she has with the dead woman, whose sincere love she has never found anywhere else.

Lucy Panush, as Little Red Riding Hood, at times steals the show (as this character often does) with her combination of selfishness, fascination with Darkness—”I Know Things Now” could be the show’s central theme as well as an overlooked masterpiece—and strangely childlike perception of relationships. Meanwhile, Will Koski’s Jack seems to share Red’s lack of understanding of the world—as well as moral decency and justice—and is equally at home with the awe-inspired “Giants in the Sky” as he is with precipitously deciding that he will personally kill the second Giant. “I know how to kill a giant,” he boasts, overlooking the fact that the first one’s death was mostly accidental. (By the way, maybe I should mention that Giants here are, as the Witch says, just like humans…only much, much bigger. Neither of them is evil, though they react very harshly when provoked and are therefore the “bad guys” when seen from the inescapable point of view of regular people.) Still, Sondheim reminds us at the end, “Witches can be right; Giants can be good.” Everything has two sides to it. Even Jack’s put-upon mother (a powerful performance by the tiny Christine Bunuan making Jack himself seem like a Giant) is not one-note: she has her darkness too.

In the end, it is the very Witch who put all of this in motion by cursing the Baker’s father with barrenness who focuses us on the promise of the future. “Children will listen,” she says in contradiction of her earlier proclamation that they won’t, so we must take care what we teach them. Natalie Weiss takes this character from pure caricature at the beginning to a far deeper understanding at the end. But, unlike some versions of the show I’ve seen, it seems clear here that the Witch—like all of these characters—has always carried both possibilities within her. Makeup designer Katie Cordts and costume designer Jordan Ross, as well as the directors, seem completely aware of this (which is, after all, just another contradiction within a character in a play rife with them) as it is only the most superficial trappings of her external appearance that undergo any change. Beneath the newly beautiful Witch, Weiss continues to exude the ugly emotional reactions that once made the character frightening. There is even a deep knowledge of Darkness within the more philosophical, more friendly version of the character she treats us to in the end: “Careful the tale you tell; that is the spell. Children will listen.”

In the end, that is the play’s message: nothing is purely good or evil. We are all just complicated messes, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Into the Woods is now playing at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd, Aurora, IL.

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