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Into the Woods

Signature's first production in its beautiful new home is a thrilling version of the popular Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical.

Eleasha Gamble in Into the Woods
(© Carol Pratt)
The big question regarding Into the Woods, the first show at Signature Theatre's new and architecturally stunning home, is about the facility itself. Has Signature retained the warm yet sophisticated feel the company achieved in their former industrial garage?

Three times larger and far more technically advanced than the old space, the new facility is gorgeous to look at, with a dramatically sweeping grand stairway leading up to a spacious foyer outfitted in the latest industrial chic style. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows allow dramatic views of the new entertainment district springing up around the theater. But in many ways, it still feels like the old garage.

As for the show itself, it's intoxicating and thrilling. Founder and artistic director Eric Schaeffer has assembled a cast of Signature regulars for this production. It's a dark yet beguiling take on the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, in which James Lapine's book and Stephen Sondheim's series of clever and captivating songs explore the dark consequences usually overlooked in their telling. Into the Woods combines the familiar stories of Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood with a new one about a Baker and his Wife, who have to break a curse to have a child. At the end of act one, everybody's problems have seemingly been solved in a typical "fairy tale ending," while in the second act, the characters find themselves dealing with the consequences of their earlier actions and little remains happily ever after.

In this version, death and disfigurement are prominent features of the stories. When someone is crunched by a giant, it's heard in bone-crunching detail. When someone is eaten by the big, bad Wolf (James Moye, who doubles as Cinderella's Prince), it's heard in tendon-ripping, blood-slurping detail. And the show isn't completely G-rated; when the lascivious lupine meets up with Little Red Riding Hood (Lauren Williams), their chipper duet "Hello, Little Girl" becomes an R-rated encounter.

The production, which takes place in Signature's 299-seaat theater, is unquestionably intimate. Seating is arranged about two thirds of the way around the rectangle. In the open area, a vine-covered and winding "stone" staircase provides entranceways in its base while leading to Rapunzel's tower high above, taking advantage of overhead space Signature did not have previously.

Music director Jon Kalbfleisch and over a dozen musicians are perched above and behind the set, with the sounds of Jonathan Tunick's uncluttered, chamber-music orchestrations filtering down clearly from the aerie. The 17 cast members, who spend most of their time on the floor, are blessedly not wearing microphones; but their voices can be distinctly heard, just like in the old garage.

Every cast member has moments to individually shine, but the real charm is found in the show's duets and group numbers. For example, the evocative "No One Is Alone," is sung here with poignancy by Stephanie Waters as a radiant Cinderella, along with Williams' perky-but-saucy Little Red Riding Hood, Daniel Cooney's sturdy Baker, and Stephen Gregory Smith's irrepressible Jack. Cooney and Harry A. Winter (as the Mysterious Man) bow to tragedy in the affecting "No More," while he and April Harr Blandin (as his wife) sing the haunting "It Takes Two."

In one of the show's most beautiful songs, "Stay With Me," Eleasha Gamble's Witch tries to keep her relationship with daughter Rapunzel (played by Erin Driscoll) from crumbling; and Gamble's rich tones and Driscoll's crystal-clear soprano elegantly intertwine. Meanwhile, Moye and Sean McLaughlin (as Rapunzel's Prince) prance about while mingling robust voices into operetta-style flourishes with two versions of "Agony." Shining through the darkness of the stories, Sondheim's music makes heart and spirit soar.

Schaeffer must have been tempted to play with his new toys, but, wisely, he held back and concentrated on storytelling. The result is a wonderful beginning for the new venue.