Signature Theatre celebrates Sondheim

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Signature Theatre celebrates Sondheim
The cast of ‘Into the Woods,’ now playing at Signature Theatre. (Photo/Daniel Rader)
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By Mae Hunt

Signature Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods” opened on Nov. 9, but have no fear, there’s still plenty of time to see it before it closes Jan. 29.

“Into the Woods” is the first installment of So Many Possibilities, Signature’s season-long tribute to the incomparable composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021. According to their website, Signature is “the American Theater that has produced and championed more of Sondheim’s work than any other,” so this thorough celebration of his legacy is no surprise. Along with performing “Into the Woods,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd” during the 2022-23 season, Signature will also host sing-alongs and other events through the Sharing Sondheim project, with the ultimate goal of speaking or singing all of Sondehim’s songs aloud before “Sweeney Todd” closes in July.

It makes sense to kick things off with “Into the Woods.” The characters are already familiar to pretty much everyone – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and so on. “Into the Woods” is one of Sondheim’s most accessible shows, and arguably one of his most disturbing – not solely because of the violence and misfortune, but because the characters who experience and carry it out are ones we associate with childhood innocence.

“Into the Woods” borrows primarily from older, and usually more gruesome, versions of fairy tales, but Sondheim was acutely aware that his audience was more familiar with simpler, sanitized adaptations. The show’s genius lies in how it does not use its darkness for shock value, but rather, as an invitation for us to look within ourselves and examine what we find.

“Into the Woods” first opened on Broadway in 1987. By then Sondheim’s reputation for writing dark shows tackling the human experience was firmly established, so it was a given that young children were not the target audience. The show firmly subverts the expected trope of the “happy ending” in Act II, focusing on themes of grief, parenthood, failure and survival.

In Signature’s production, Lee Savage’s scenic design reflected Sondheim’s subversion. The thrust stage is skewed at an angle, challenging the audience to view the show’s events from an unexpected perspective. Trees, vines and shrubs encroach on a dilapidated-looking interior, demonstrating the power and perpetuity of the titular “woods,” where all the significant plot points and character growth takes place. One set detail I particularly enjoyed was the use of furniture items as unconventional entrances. Every time a character emerged from the back of a wardrobe into a scene, I found myself swept up by sheer fairytale whimsy.

Many of the technical choices were also innovative. “Into the Woods” presents a challenge, because one of its major antagonists is performed only by the actor’s pre-recorded voice, communicating with the main characters from offstage. Lighting designer Amanda Zieve and sound designer Eric Norris were able to convey the sense of terror these character’s scenes require through severe lighting and stage and sound effects distinct from anything else in the production.

The fantastic 15-piece orchestra was also a highlight. The orchestra not only complemented the cast’s singing, but also made me feel immersed in the seductive, ominous setting of the woods.

Although “Into the Woods” contains few elaborate dance numbers, its sizable ensemble cast requires a skillful use of the theater space. I was impressed by director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner’s blocking and transitions, especially when all of the characters had to move around the stage at once, each with a unique goal and destination. The musical numbers that featured the entire company were my favorite parts of the show, because the seamless choreography was so fun to watch.

Sondheim writes his stock characters with nuance and complexity, and the Signature cast succeeded in bringing his words to life. Alex De Bard was born to play Little Red Riding Hood, bringing vocal chops and excellent comedic timing to my personal favorite Sondheim number, “I Know Things Now.” Vincent Kempski and Paul Scanlan stole the show as the two princes, especially during the hilarious duet, “Agony.” The authentic emotions from the actors, especially during Act II, were impressive across the board. Katie Mariko Murray as Cinderella and Jake Loewenthal as the Baker each gave particularly moving performances, somehow leaving me simultaneously heartbroken and uplifted.

At its core, “Into the Woods” is about the importance of stories. Sondheim uses familiar tropes and a nebulous setting to demonstrate that we can always grow from the past and pass the lessons we learn down to our children. From start to finish, Signature Theatre’s production hums with love and care for the story Sondheim created, with all its twists and intricacies.

The writer, a lifelong Alexandrian, works in the fine arts industry. She is an award-winning playwright who was former editor-in-chief and fine arts editor of the Kenyan Collegian.

At a glance

Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Virginia 22206

When: Through Jan. 29.

Tickets: www.sigtheatre.org; Email tickets@sigtheatre.org or call the box office at 703-829-9771

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