Enchanting Trip ‘Into the Woods’
My "official" introduction to Stephen Sondheim musicals occurred sometime around my 9th or 10th year of life, when I watched a hilarious film version of the Broadway play, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum". It is still one of my favorite films and plays to this day. Unofficially, I was very familiar with "West Side Story" and "Gypsy", thanks to my parents, who knew the shows well and often sang songs from them.
My college years as a theater major were full of Sondheim music and lyrics. My freshman year our theater department did "Company", junior year, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" , and senior year it was "A Little Night Music".
Sondheim musicals are an intricate weaving of words and music into a seamless kind of mosaic, delving into sometimes surprising subject matter like serial murderers (Sweeney Todd), or presidential assassins (Assassins). His shows' witty, rapid-fire wordplay can sometimes come at you like an Aaron Sorkin episode of West Wing on acid!
You must pay attention or you'll miss the point, the lesson, the humor, the emotion. Tom Service of The Guardian newspaper once said about Stephen Sondheim, he "takes the laurels as the composer who did the most to sustain the art-form of marrying words and drama to music."
That long introduction is my way of working into a review of the Fiasco Theater production of "Into the Woods" which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Washington Pavilion. This ambitious staging took 11 immensely talented players with impressive theater credentials and put them to work on a spare, multi-purpose stage and made them earn every penny of their pay!
Most cast members (there were 4 exceptions) played multiple roles, as well as musical instruments. And not just any musical instruments. They were their own orchestra with piano, cello, bassoon, guitar, percussion, and wooden flute, all played by the actors.
If you are unfamiliar with "Into the Woods", the show is a somewhat modernized melange of Brother's Grimm fairy tales spun into a complex tapestry, during which the characters from differing stories interact with each other. The plot is an examination of the ramifications of wishes and whether the things you wish for are really what you want.
The acting and singing were remarkable with nearly every musical number garnering applause from the appreciative audience. My only criticism of the show would be for my beloved Mr. Sondheim; the show is simply too long! It is as if he felt the need to pack as much into it as he could and after two hours, just kept adding. But I didn't mind, and by the standing ovation and twin curtain calls which occurred at the conclusion of the performance, I was not alone.