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Stage Review: Into the Woods at Nocturne Theatre

The creators of Haunted Soirée take audiences on a wild journey along the thorny path of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale musical.

Meyer2Meyer Entertainment, the creative team behind Haunted Soiree, have launched their inaugural spring season at the Nocturne Theatre with a production of Into the Woods, which is simultaneously Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible and most perplexing musical: most accessible because it is constructed around well-known fairy tales; most perplexing because it deliberately deconstructs those tales in a comically ruthless fashion.

This strategy of pretending to fulfill expectations only to undermine them can be difficult to pull off, but director Justin Meyer navigates the tricky terrain without stumbling. With the help of a great cast, the company’s “fashion forward” stylization of costume and character design creates a world both fanciful enough to accommodate fairy tale characters and off-kilter enough to foreshadow the sinister twists and turns their paths will take. Audiences expecting a Disney experience may balk at encountering something more Grimm, but those eager to explore darker areas of the forest will find the journey rewarding.

Into The Woods Stage Review: What happens after “Happily Ever After”?
Into the Woods 2024 Review
The Witch (Liana Rose)

Sondheim’s musical (with book by James Lapine) weaves together several famous fairy tales: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Bean Stalk,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel,” along with brief references to “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty.” The central characters are an unnamed Baker and his Wife, who are childless because his family was cursed when his father stole magic beans from a witch’s garden. For reasons of her own, the witch offers to lift the curse if the childless couple can supply her with several items: Red Riding Hood’s cloak, Jack’s cow, Cinderella’s slipper, and Rapunzel’s hair. Since these characters are not eager to part with their possessions, the Baker and his Wife cajole, swindle, and steal to get them; however, the ends seem to justify the means when all the characters apparently achieve their “Happily Ever After” ending before the curtain falls on Act One.

The joy of Into the Woods‘s first act is the clever way the various storylines intersect and overlap while the songs add fresh life along with unexpected undercurrents. For example, the lyrics of “Hello, Little Girl” make the Wolf sound like a child predator lusting after Red Riding Hood: “Look at that flesh, pink and plump…tender and fresh…this one’s especially lush.” The result feels fairly close to the source material, and the “ending” seems satisfying, leaving audiences to wonder why the story is (in the words of the Narrator) “to be be continued.”

However, mines have been laid, and they start to go off in Act Two when “Happily Ever After” turns out to be not so happy after all. Consequences begin to catch up to everyone: most notably, the wife of the giant whom Jack killed in Act One shows up and stomps half the cast to death (off-stage of course). The surviving characters are left pointing fingers of blame at each other while debating their own version of The Trolly Problem: whether to sacrifice Jack in order to save everyone else. In the end, their only hope for survival depends on achieving an emotional maturity not seen in traditional fairy tales: giving up on blame, acknowledging morally gray areas, and setting aside selfish differences in order to band together with a communal purpose.

The potential pitfall with this two-act structure is that no one really needed Into the Woods to tell us that fairy tale endings are not realistic. The second act runs the risk of feeling like an unnecessary addition, violating the fun of the first half in order to deliver a message we already know (in fact high school productions of Into the Woods sometime omit Act Two). The misbegotten 2013 Disney film adaptation fell deeply into this trap by (among other things) playing the first half of the story for sincerity instead of comedy, then desperately trying to blunt the impact of fatal repercussions in the second half.

Into the Woods Review musical
Jack (Nolan Monsibay), his mother (Kate Clarke) and their cow Milky White (Samantha Tilley)

Fortunately, the production at the Nocturne Theatre deftly dances around this pitfall. The in-house style of Meyer2Meyer Entertainment is perfectly suited to telling the story of Into the Woods, which relies on theatrical artifice in order to work. The costumes, masks, hairstyles, and performances create their own alternate reality where we can enjoy the foibles and follies of the fairy tale form while laughing at them in amusement (but not scorn). To cite one clever example: Unlike the original Broadway production, in which Jack’s cow was a prop, Milky White is here portrayed by an actor (Samantha Tilley) wearing a costume which leaves her face clearly visible beneath a dangling bovine head, so that she can register expressions in response to the various derogatory statements made in reference to Milky’s appearance. (Tilley also provides the booming voice for the offstage Giant.)

Caught in the spell cast by these fanciful depictions, the audience is lulled into liking characters who are (in the words of the Witch) “not good…just nice,” and so we celebrate their success in Act One even while knowing in the back of our minds that something is slightly askew. Thus, the abrupt about-face in Act Two feels less like an unnecessary addition and more like an inevitable consequence we were hoping the characters would avoid.

It may be an odd analogy, but the impact is roughly equivalent to the two-part finale of the Seinfeld television series, in which the beloved characters are put on trial, and every despicable thing they ever did is dredged up against them. The effect might be unpleasant and off-putting if not for the comic distancing that allows us to laugh at the realization that we have been rooting for characters who, at least to some extent, deserve what’s coming to them.

Into The Woods Stage Review: Theatre in the Round
Into the Woods Review Nocturne Theatre
Theatre-in-the-Round set for Into the Woods

Nocturne Theater offers a theater-in-the-round presentation of Into the Woods, which works extremely well because the musical is an ensemble piece in which multiple characters frequently share the stage, crisscrossing paths as they encounter each other in the titular forest. Taking advantage of this, the staging and the choreography (the latter by Melissa Meyer) has the actors playing to every section of the audience. You might get a closer look at Cinderella or Rapunzel depending on where you are sitting, but there is literally not a bad seat in the house.

Their voices mic’d for amplification, the cast sing to prerecorded music, and the stereo mix does a great job of keeping the voices separated according to where actors are located (unlike the mix at A Noise Within’s presentation of Sweeney Todd, where voices remained dead center even when actors wandered off the stage). They lyrics still get a little muddled when multiple voices are singing counterpoint, but to our ears this sounds clearer than what we heard at Nocturne’s presentation of Madame Scrooge last Winter.

Of course, sound quality would mean nothing if the voices were not worth hearing. Fortunately, there is not a bum note to be heard (except perhaps for the deliberately childish tone of Abby Espiritu as Red Riding Hood, but that reflects the nature of her character). Since this is an ensemble piece, it is hard to single individuals out for praise; that difficulty is magnified by the consistently high quality of the songs (in Sondheim musicals, you do not sit through a lot of filler waiting for one or two highlights). Nevertheless, the “Agony” duets by Darius Marquis Johnson and Kelby Thwaits are wonderful, and Thwaits also has a great time with “Hello, Little Girl” (per tradition, the actor plays both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf – two characters driven by their appetites). Liana Rose comes closest to stealing the show with “Last Midnight,” an irrepressibly catchy opportunity for the Witch to tell off the rest of the cast, gloating over the fate that awaits them in consequence of their various sins and failings.

Still, the most important dramatic moment belongs to Nathanael O’Neal, who evokes the Baker’s epiphany in “No More” – a moment essential to the show. Without it, Into the Woods might seem to be trashing fairy tales for the fun of it, but this song gives the character a chance to display a growing maturity as he wrestles with who he was and who he wants to be. It almost turns the musical into a kinder, gentler version of Wagner’s Gotterdamerung – the “Twilight of the Fairy Tales” instead of the “Twilight of the Gods” – with the protagonist yearning to set aside witches, curses, and giants in favor of ordinary domesticity, meaning he is ready to accept the burden of a normal adult life instead of the escapism of childish fantasy.

Into the Woods Review
The Wolf (Kelby Thwaits)

The fairy tale source material provides opportunities for dazzling costume and character design, such as the witch with the boney hump protruding through the back of her cloak. The glowing red eyes of the Wolf’s head emphasize the fearsome aspect of a character who is funny in an uncomfortably creepy way, and there is a clever use of massively oversized jaws (manipulated by stage hands) when the Wolf swallows Red Riding Hood.

One questionable decision lies in the presentation of the Narrator (Brayden Hade), whose costume makes him look like one of the characters. He should present as a stuffy academic – a voice of tradition, telling fairy tales as they are “supposed” to be told. Blurring the separation between him and the rest of the cast undermines a key development in Act Two, when the remaining characters suddenly acknowledge the Narrator’s existence and debate whether they can save their lives by sacrificing him to the giant.

This famous moment of breaking the Fourth Wall announces that Into the Woods is discarding any deference toward  the source material. In a post-modern, self-referential way that we now call “meta,” the storyteller becomes part of the story because the characters don’t like the way he is telling the tale. Their fate is no longer in his hands; the old traditions have been overthrown, and now anything can happen. Unfortunately, the shift from “objective” outsider to participant is less vivid when the Narrator has been acting like part of the ensemble from the beginning.

Also worth noting: The Narrator is another role that is traditionally doubled up: actor Brayden Hade also plays the Mysterious Man who [SPOILER] turns out to be the Baker’s father, thus forging a connection between paternal authority and the received wisdom of tales passed down from one generation to the next. Just as the characters rebel against the Narrator, the Baker rebels against repeating his father’s mistakes. [END SPOILER].

Into the Woods Stage Review: Conclusion

We are still not completely convinced that Stephen Sondheim needed to tell us that fairy tales are not realistic, but the production at Nocturne Theatre is far more convincing than the Disney film (which is, unfortunately, probably the way most people know Into the Woods). On stage, the metaphorical nature of the musical is more apparent: the woods are less a real location than a psychological landscape, representing possibilities both good and bad: adventure, romance, and happiness on one hand; tragedy, betrayal, and loss on the other. In keeping with this, the characters are more caricatures than fully developed personalities, but this creates the challenge for Act Two: Are we suddenly supposed to believe these deficient dramatis personae have believable human frailties?

Apparently, the solution is to embrace the material with an infectious enthusiasm that encourages us to laugh along – not only at the overt humor but also at our own thwarted expectations as the story veers off the beaten path. In less talented hands, the premise of Into the Woods could have yielded lame crossover fan-fiction (“Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if Cinderella met Rapunzel?”); instead, Stephen Sondheim gave us a satirical deconstruction. In less talented hands, a production of Into the Woods can yield a schizophrenic mess that feels as if it should have ended after the first curtain; instead, the cast and crew at Nocturne Theatre prove that it is possible to go deep into the woods without getting lost.

Into the Woods (2024) at Nocturne Theatre

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

Into the Woods poster Audiences expecting a traditional rendition of famous fairy tales may encounter a few surprises on the way, but this imaginatively produced trip into the woods is definitely worth taking.

Credits: Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Orchestrations by Jonathon Tunick. Director: Justin Meyer. Music Director: Nolan Monsibay. Choreographer: Melissa Meyer. Creature and Costume Designer: Tanya Cyr. Scenic Designer: Jay Michael Roberts. Lighting Designer: Eric Marsh. Sound Engineer: Matt Merline. Assistant Choreographer: Micahlis Schinas. Stage Manager: Micah Delhauer. Scenic Builder: Seth Logan. Meyer2Meyer GM: Randi Stuart. Nocturne Theatre Technician: Kyle Sword. Meyer2Meyer Assistant Producer: Michaela Sword. Wardrobe Assistant: Gavin Dietz. Special FX Assistant: Sydney Swayer. Assistant Scenic Team: Rachel Franke, Chess MacElvaine, Joe Salling, David French. Presented by special arrangement with Music Theatre International.

Cast: Brayden Hade – Narrator/Mysterious Man. Liana Rose – Witch. Nathanael O’Neal – Baker. Madison Stirrett – Baker’s Wife. Lilli Babb – Cinderella. Abby Espiritu – Little Red Riding Hood. Nolan Monsibay – Jack. Kate Clarke – Jack’s Mother. Samantha Tilley – Milky White. Mikki Pagdonsolan – Granny/Rapunzel. Kelby Thwaits – Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf. Darius Marquis Johnson – Rapunzel’s Prince. Chess MacElvaine – Steward. Rachel Franke – Stepmother. Renee Cohen – Lucinda. Faith Berrigan – Florinda.

Into the Woods wraps up at the Nocturne Theatre with a final performance on Saturday, March 23 at 2pm. The address is  324 North Orange Street in Glendale. For more information, call (818) 839-0984; email info@meyer2meyer.com, or visit the official website: thenocturnetheatre.com.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.