Stage Door Review

Into the Woods

Sunday, October 31, 2021

✭✭

music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by Michael Torontow

Talk Is Free Theatre, Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto

October 28-31, 2021

Little Red Riding Hood: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot!

And a little bit not...”

Talk Is Free Theatre, located in Barrie, has brought its production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods to Toronto and anyone who has had the good fortune to see it will be glad that the company has done so. It is a highly innovative production that heightens the theatricality of the original and as a result has made it more playful and more engaging.

This version of the musical as directed by Michael Torontow played to sold-out audiences twice in Barrie. In 2019 it played indoors at the Georgian Theatre and in 2020 it was staged outdoors in an actual woods. In Toronto TIFT has found the closest indoor equivalent to a woods in the in the form of the Winter Garden Theatre with it 3D woodland décor and its moody full moon on house left.

As most frequent theatre-goers will know, Into the Woods (1987) cleverly intertwines three German fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel – with one English fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk to tell an overarching story about wishes and their consequences. (The chosen four fairy tales may be from specific national sources but they, of course, represent four of the world-wide story types as per the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system.)

In particular book writer James Lapine uses the Rapunzel story to tie all four together. In the Grimm Brothers’ version Rapunzel is the daughter of the Baker and his wife whom they are forced to give to the Witch to avoid her punishment. In Lapine’s version Rapunzel is the Witch’s daughter. The Baker and his wife long for a child and the Witch will grant their wish as long as the Baker brings her four things – Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, Cinderella’s shoe, a hank of Rapunzel’s hair and Jack’s white cow. This set-up the provides the rationale for the characters’ main interactions.

What makes director Michael Torontow’s staging of the musical so radical is how he has pared the musical down to its irreducible components. This is most noticeable in the casting. The original 1987 production had a cast of 19. Torontow’s production uses only nine. In the original production there was some doubling. Here Torontow goes far beyond this. In the original one actor played both the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. Here Derek Kwan also plays Cinderella’s Father. In 1987 one actor played Cinderella’s Stepmother, Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother and the Giant’s Wife. Here Glynnis Ranney plays these plus Jack’s Mother. In 1987 one actor played both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf. Here Griffin Hewitt plays these and one of Cinderella’s sisters.

This tripling carries on with Richard Lam who plays not only Rapunzel’s Prince but Jack’s cow Milky White and Cinderella’s other sister. Noah Beemer is both Jack and the royal Steward while Germaine Konji plays the two major roles of Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. Tracy Michailidis plays both the Witch and the spirit of Cinderella’s real Mother.

This leaves only three performers who play only one character – Aidan deSalaiz as the Baker, Jamie McRoberts as the Baker’s Wife and Tess Benger as Cinderella.

The effect of all the doubling, tripling and even quadrupling is to heighten the theatricality and the playfulness of the piece. The process makes very clear that the actors are playing roles and it is simply fun to watch how with the flipping up of her bonnet Ranney changes from Cinderella’s wealthy stepmother to Jack’s impoverished mother or how with snapping open of their fans Hewitt and Lam change from manly princes to evil step-sisters.

The minimalism of the production and its playfulness are reinforced by Laura Delchiaro’s costumes. For the most part her “costumes” simply look like ordinary clothing chosen with some reference to the characters played. The characters don’t look like characters but like us. Jack is the only character who is a young boy so he is also the only character who wears shorts. Lam plays Jack’s Jack’s cow, Milky White, and so wears a white shirt. Otherwise, Delchiaro indicates a character with the simple addition of one significant emblem. When Hewitt and Lam play Cinderella’s stepsisters they deploy their fans. When they play the princes they call attention to the sashes they wear. When Lam plays Milky White he dons a cowbell. When Ranney plays Jack’s mother she flips up a cloth maid bonnet to cover her hair.

The only costumes that look like costumes are the ragged hooded floor-length cloak that the Witch wears, Little Red Riding Hood’s red riding hood, Rapunzel’s wig with its long golden braid and the Wolf’s hat with wolf ears sticking out.

Joe Pagnan’s set is similarly minimalist. The band is onstage throughout the performance. Across the stage are nine tree stumps where the actors sit when not performing. Visually dividing the stage in two is a branchless tree that ascends from the stage floor to above the proscenium. Strangely, one section of the tree has been pushed out of alignment with the rest of the trunk. This cleverly suggests the musical’s division into two halves along with the out-of-sync nature of Act 2 that shows us the disasters that follow the “happily ever after” that ends Act 1.

As a fairy-tale musical Into the Woods is a designer’s dream as it was in the Stratford Festival’s production of 2005. Yet, too much emphasis on the show’s production values can undermine the storytelling. In Torontow’s production everything puts the actors and acting first along with the stories they tell. Emphasizing the show’s theatricality also helps make Act 2, which quite often feels like an unnecessary epilogue seem like a further extension of the show’s mischievous blending of the four fairy tales.

Into the Woods is an ensemble piece and all nine performers are fine singer and actors. Of the actors who play only one role Tracy Michailidis’ Witch tends to dominate. She manages to make the Witch both menacing and comic especially when the Witch stops cold, seeming to forget what it was that she was ranting about. Yet, Michailidis gives up the Witch’s cackling and scratchy voice when she is transformed and gives an impressive account of the doom-filled song “Last Midnight”.

Tess Benger gives us a very conflicted Cinderella. We can see why Cinderella should be unhappy in her stepmother’s house, but Benger makes it quite believable that Cinderella should also be unhappy even when she knows the Prince is in love with her. “What will he think when he finds out who she really is?”, she wonders, besides being aware in this version that his affections never last long.

Aidan deSalaiz and Jamie McRoberts are well-cast as the Baker and his Wife and they make their characters’ arguments and reconciliations the most realistic in the show. Aidan deSalaiz speaks and sings with such sincerity that his Baker really becomes the moral centre of the action. McRoberts gives a fine rendition of “Moments in the Woods” in which the Baker’s Wife tries to find some mitigation for the guilt she feels.

Griffin Hewitt and Richard Lam are hilarious both as Cinderella’s vain step-sisters and as the two vain Princes. As the Princes bewailing the plight of their privilege their song “Agony” and its reprise receive uproarious laughter and hearty applause. In contrast, Hewitt sets aside all humour to make the Wolf and his song “Hello, Little Girl” genuinely creepy. Lam shows that he is also adept at nonverbal humour when he plays the hapless Milky White who struggles to understand what her various owners are asking of her.

Glynnis Ranney portrays two types of humour when she underlines the superficiality of Cinderella’s stepmother and the smothering motherliness of Jack mother. All humour vanishes however when she is the voice of the Giant’s Wife.

Germaine Konji is the only character beside the Witch who undergoes a major transformation in Act 1. Once an innocent young thing as Little Red Riding Hood, after the Wolf’s death she transforms into a warrior maiden fiercer than either of the Princes. Konji gives up the little-girl voice she uses as Little Red when she lends a lovely full sound to Rapunzel’s lament.

Derek Kwan is a genial Narrator and is so mysterious as the Mysterious Man that we wonder whether the Man is really the Narrator in disguise attempting to influence the course of the story he is telling. Noah Beemer is very funny as the hapless but lucky Jack and as the pompous but unlucky Steward.

Although Torontow has reduced the Sondheim’s cast to nine, he has also included TIFT’s Young Company in the production. He has them present a spoken prologue that situates us in the Winter Garden Theatre and mentions legends associated with that venue. He also has them act as stage hands bringing in and retrieving props at appropriate moments. Their lively presence reminds us of the intended audience for fairy tales   and of how fairy tales were meant to help children accommodate themselves to the menacing world in which they found themselves.

This is such a well-thought-through production Torontonians should feel lucky that TIFT has brought the show to us. At the same time, the excellence of this show should make Torontonians aware TIFT is one of the most vibrant, innovative theatre companies in Ontario, more daring in some of its programming and productions than many in Toronto. As they showed in their co-pro of Sondheim’s Assassins in 2010, TIFT provides one of the best reasons why Torontonians who love exciting theatre need now and then to look beyond the city’s borders.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Griffin Hewitt, Glynnis Ranney, Richard Lam, Derek Kwan, Noah Beemer, Tracy Michailidis and Aiden deSalaiz in Into the Woods in Barrie in 2020; Tracy Michailidis as the Witch, Jamie McRoberts as the Baker’s Wife and Aiden deSalaiz as the Baker; Griffin Hewitt as Lucinda, Tess Benger as Cinderella, Richard Lam as Florinda, Glynnis Ranney as Cinderella’s Stepmother with Aiden deSalaiz and Jamie McRoberts in the background; Germaine Konji as Little Red and Griffin Hewitt as the Wolf. © 2020 Scott Cooper.

For tickets visit www.tift.ca.