Paramount Theatre’s eleventh-anniversary Broadway series continues with “Into the Woods,” the ruminative mashup of classic fairytales reimagined by James Lapine and the late Stephen Sondheim.
On its face, “Into the Woods” could be a quirky romp in which we meet well-known characters like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and follow them through their traditional tales—Cinderella to a festival and Little Red to her grandmother’s house. To reach their destinations, characters must travel through the woods; a liminal space where confidence wavers and it’s easy to get lost and stray from the path, especially when opportunities arise.
But here is where “Into the Woods” stands out from the rest. It’s intelligent, and uses the audience’s contented familiarity with these beloved stories to lure them in, while remaining so open and honest that we barely notice its grip has tightened until we’re pulled into near-existential territory. The woods are an allegory for the world. This is an incredibly thoughtful show, and co-directors Jim Corti and Trent Stork don’t shy away from the big questions. In this case, what happens after the big happy ending? When the fanfare dies down and you have everything you ever wanted, is it still enough?
This is truly an ensemble piece. Every actor in Paramount’s production is needed to bring this multilayered story to life, and you’re guaranteed to catch a glimpse of yourself in at least one of the complex, self-aware characters onstage. Despite the storybook setting, there is a running undercurrent of frustration in the relatable players that keeps the material pointed. The Baker’s Wife (Sarah Bockel) and Cinderella (Hannah Fernandes) each start the show wanting more, but when more finally arrives, it’s no longer exciting. And after all the trouble they went through to get it, is that wrong to admit? Both Bockel and Fernandes rationalize their actions intelligently in real time through Sondheim’s syncopated phrasing and honest lyrics.
Will Koski (Jack) and Lucy Panush (Little Red Ridinghood) are excellent. As the uncertain, gentle Jack, Koski and his rendition of “Giants in the Sky” capture the mixed feelings of joy and fear that come with the tremulous transition from childhood to adulthood. On the other hand, Panush’s Little Red pulsates with little girl bravado. Her encounter with the Wolf (Alex Syiek), hungry in more ways than one, leaves her less assured, yet ultimately grateful for the lessons she’s learned. Jack’s best friend Milky White, handled by Adam Fane and created by puppet designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock, is personable and expressive.
From the bright and bouncy “Prologue: Into the Woods” to the hilarious “Agony” of two competitive, and occasionally lecherous, prince siblings—performed with pitch-perfect comedic timing and physicality by Alex Syiek and Devin DeSantis—to the poignant and comforting “No One Is Alone,” there is a reason this show and its songs loom large in musical theater canon. The sixteen-piece orchestra, led by conductor Kory Danielson, skillfully performs the show’s original orchestrations. The set is beautiful—scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s autumnal woodland shifts from warm and sun-dappled to chilling and ominous with the lighting by José Santiago.
“Into the Woods” is funny and sad, hopeful and bittersweet, and very, very human. It reminds us that we all must pass through the woods at one point or another and aim to emerge, for better or worse.
“Into the Woods” at Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora, (630)896-6666, paramountaurora.com, $28-$79. Through March 19.