Into the Neon Wilds: The 5th’s Spin on a Classic
A modern, farcical presentation leans into the humor of the classic Sondheim fairy-tale mashup with a star-filled cast. It runs through March 5.
Into the Woods is not my favorite musical. Probably because it’s really long. And because the only story line I really care about is what happens to the cow.
In this Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by James Lapine) — which Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre programmed in a double-header celebration of the great composer-lyricist’s work after his death in late 2021 — several of the best-known classic fairy tales are smashed into one. A witch descends upon a baker and his wife’s desire to have a child, promising them a way out of their curse of infertility: if they find and bring back the assortment of stuff she needs in order to reverse her own curse, she’ll free them to become subservient to their own bawling bundle of joy. All they have to do is steal the most-loved stuff of all the classic characters around them.
But the 5th has taken a different approach in staging this Bill Berry-directed one, hamming it up by emphasizing farce (through movements and caricature), and leaning a bit abstract and modern (by ditching any actual forest-looking setting and replacing it with lots of neon lights and a strange ever-shifting centerpiece of industrial step-ladders, in the set designed by Lex Marcos and lighting by Ben Zamora).
And hey — I actually liked it. Purists perhaps will not.
The setups are meant to be funny. Rapunzel (Miranda Antoinette) stands on the floor, rather than aloft, and lowers her hair that, in a wrap-around gag, still comes down from the ceiling, in huge rope-like braids like a raggedy anaconda. The narrator (Mari Nelson) does triple-plus duty, as the playfully-overplayed detective-like old man, Cinderella’s mom, and more. Cinderella’s Prince (understudy Casey Raiha in the opening-night performance) seems opportuni-sexual, perhaps wanting to get it on with the Rapunzel’s Prince (Antonio Mitchell) along with the Baker’s Wife (Ilika). Red Riding Hood (Sarah Garcia) could only be more classically bratty if she was popping enormous orbs of bubble gum.
Mostly, the show belongs to the warring brains: the scheming witch (played by Porscha Shaw) and the guide in narrator form (Nelson). Both have already shown off their center-stage vocals (most recently at The 5th: leads in Beauty and the Beast for Shaw and Afterwords for Nelson), and both were highlights in their big roles here.
Sarah Russell has some big shining moments throughout the show, as Cinderella. She hams up the funny parts effectively; she shines as a princess; and she so clearly wants to get away from it all. (In one of her best lines, she asserts, “Wanting a ball is not wanting a prince.”) But the place where her voice really gets to soar is near the end, in “No One Is Alone.”
Likewise, as the Baker’s Wife, Cayman Ilika’s “Moments in the Woods” is gorgeous, Ilika’s biggest shining moment in a really strong performance. I like a lot of Ilika’s work anyway — and I have pretty much my whole show-going decade since moving back to Seattle, kicking off with the ACT/5th co-production of Jacques Brel — but this stands out as one of her meatiest roles and strongest performances.
On the flip side, it’s frustrating to see Shaunyce Omar — a seriously strong actor in both dramas and musicals and with a roaring voice that, when allowed to roam free, can keel you right over with feeling — getting typecast once again as the Sassy Black Villain (following The 5th’s The Wiz) or, further back, the Sassy Black Minor Sidekick (Village Theatre’s Matilda). Omar is a star; and if you’ve seen her hold down a whole show at Seattle Rep in Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer or Shout Sister Shout! (lead understudy in both); or as the devout Aunt Sarah in Nina Simone: Four Women, also at the Rep; or in some passionate vocal roles at further-back Village Theatre shows (her Gregory Award-winning Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, or her stunning grandmother in My Heart Is the Drum), you already know that. Am I happy to see her in big shows? Of course. And she makes the best of the roles. But someone needs to stop burying her light under dimensionless, cackling characters.
If you’re a classics purist, this probably isn’t the show for you. But The 5th’s Into the Woods brings out the fairy-tale farce with a cohesive directorial and design vision, with a great cast and orchestra to match. If you need some lightness and laughs, you might like this one a lot.
And unlike other shows, Into the Woods is a little bit Choose Your Own Adventure-style. Want the kid-friendly, tidy, happy ending? Leave after Act 1; the show truly does feel complete ending there. Want the darker, messier stuff that happens after the natural consequences of their wishes start coming to pass? Stick around for the conclusion of this near-three-hour musical marathon.
Into the Woods runs through 3/5 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $89-$204, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gender-neutral on the main level; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL interpreted performance on 2/26 (matinee). Same-day $30 rush tickets available to certain groups; see info at ticket link. Runtime: approximately 2 hours 55 minutes, with intermission.
View full casting and creative team here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.