“Careful the things you say; children will listen,” sings The Witch, played by the full-voiced Bethany Thomas, at the conclusion of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. This bittersweet finale reminds us that our actions have consequences, both good and bad.
And, in a musical that explores what happens after “happily ever after” for three classic fairy tales — along with a baker and his wife who, in their attempts to undo a curse placed on their house by The Witch, find themselves mixed up in the action — we learn that while consequences may sober our spirits, they make us wiser, stronger and, well, adult.
Porchlight Music Theatre has a long history of artfully staging Sondheim shows on the small. And this isn’t their first time going Into the Woods — Porchlight originally did the show in 2000. So it would seem they would have figured out some of the puzzles of the piece: mainly how to create cohesion in a show that could easily be called “Fractured Fairytales.” While Director L. Walter Stearns has assembled some fine performances, including Brianna Borger as the Baker’s Wife and the two princes, played by Cameron Brune and Travis Taylor, an ensemble feel is sorely lacking. These are all fine singer/actors who are working too hard to sell their individual stories. And as The Witch, who serves as a moral compass of sorts, Thomas has a killer voice (I don’t think I’ve heard “Last Midnight” sung so menacingly before), but is otherwise one note.
The scenic design by Ian Zywica also doesn’t help things. With tan everywhere and a few dead tree limbs framing a dusty stage, it seems like this cast is acting on a barren Desert Storm camp. And Stearns has delegated the more technical staging, such as the battling of a giantess and a growing beanstalk, to a series of projections — which is fine in theory, but in practice the projections are awkward, and, at times, downright ugly.
Fortunately, Sondheim and Lapine’s award-winning work overcomes these challenges, and the vocally strong cast does rise to the emotional occasion in the last heartfelt moments. The small chamber group of strings and woodwind under musical director Eugene Dizon is tight, representing Sondheim’s spirited score well.
That said, I do question a choice made in this production with Sondheim’s score. “Children Will Listen,” which usually directly segues into the title tune for the finale, now has a revised ending with a blackout. Sondheimites: have you heard this song end this way in other productions? Has Sondheim approved this?
“Into the Woods” plays through March 30 at the Theatre Building Chicago. More information here >