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'Into the Woods' review: Encore offers an unforgettable reimagining of the beloved classic


Courtesy of The Encore Musical Theatre Company

 

Since its inception in the late 80s, the Stephen Sondheim classic “Into the Woods” has never lost its cultural relevance, especially among musical theater aficionados. Just as recently as 2022, the nearly 40-year-old production was revived on Broadway and then had the juice to sustain another national tour. Few shows (let alone one’s written decades ago) have the prowess to put those kind’ve butts in seats. That type of name brand recognition can make or break a season, but when a show has been mounted as many times as “Into the Woods” has (not to mention the faithfuls, including me, have probably seen it oh, I dunno, a dozen times or, quite possibly, even acted in the show) it becomes a question of what more subtext or creative ingenuity can be mustered from such a well known property?


In the case of the Encore Musical Theatre Company's latest rendition, it turns out the answer is plenty. Director Matthew Brennan and the entire cast and crew have churned out a unique, one-of-a-kind reimagining that ebbs and flows with all the classic “Into the Woods” hallmarks, but takes on an entire new life of its own. At times, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time, which is a remarkable achievement. 


Brennan makes the bold and risky choice of ditching the traditional elements of the production (though none of the dialogue or songs are changed obviously) and recontextualizes just exactly what it means to literally go into the woods. In fact, patrons who saw the Encore’s musical adaptation of “Into the Wild,” may have intermittent flashbacks. The iconic story of the Baker (Marcus Jordan), his wife (Jessica Grové) and their quest to procure magical ingredients for a wicked witch (Jennifer Horne) so they can bore a child, sees them not stationed in a magical, fairytale kingdom, but a rustic campground, selling baked goods inside a camper that looks like something Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation” would roll up in. Production designer Sarah Tanner (with scenic work by Berry Stovall and Kate Vanhorn) for the win. 


From there, the story takes shape with the narrator beating the drum of the tale where the array of characters, including the determined Jack (Tsumari Patterson), a plucky Little Red Riding Hood (Sienna Berkseth), and a down-on-her-luck Cinderella (Ash Moran), travel into the woods on intersecting journeys that involves giants in beanstalks, egotistical princes (Nicholas Kraft and Marcus Calderon - who almost steal the show), and mysterious old men (Dan Morrison - channing an energy akin to the Cheshire Cat meets Bugs Bunny). 


In foregoing the elements audiences usually expect from a production of “Into the Woods,” Brennan keeps us guessing at what new surprises will come from the characters and their interactions. One such characterization, for example, redefines Jack's Mother (played by the great Sarah B. Stevens) as a chain smoker who probably just lost her job at the nearby motel. In changing up the model, it also allows for some clever staging with, I’m not joking, a pivotal scene being told via a puppet show, and the implementation of a scissor lift. 


Brennan also has the actors spill into the house, creating an immersive, theater troupe-like experience as if these merry band of performers just happened to get together in the campground and tell an old folktale for those lucky enough to be in attendance. And the performances are all top-notch: Jordan and Grové have a sobering chemistry; Patterson shines as the heavy-hearted Jack who will do anything to save his cow, Milky White (played by Gayle E. Martin, because of course); Kraft and Calderon clearly understood their assignments as the headstrong princes who clearly think more with their heads rather than their hearts; Lucia Flowers unloads some beautiful vocals playing Rapunzel (who isn’t locked inside a tower this time around); Aidan B. Jones makes for a witty narrator; Berkseth has impeccable comedic timing (and vocals) as her Little Red Riding Hood takes on big bad wolves; and Horne carries a heavy load as the witch, who never misses a beat. 


The remaining supporting players, Marlene Inman, Sabrina Dahlgren, Elizabeth Jaffe, playing everything from grandmothers to evil stepsisters and stepmothers, complement an already sensational production. Costumes by Marilee Dechart are ingenious while Frank Pitt’s music direction (and the live orchestra) helps enliven an unforgettable catalog of hits. If there were any blemishes during the performance I attended, it would revolve around a spattering of distracting audio issues, including a moment where characters' mics would just stop working in the middle of a scene. 


Nevertheless, if you’ve never seen “Into the Woods” or you’re seeing it for the umpteenth time, the Encore’s production is truly something special. It has an ingenious concept, amazing performances, and stays true to the source material as much as it carves out its own distinctive identity. You should make plans to see it, because I’m certain there will never be another version like it. 


The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production of INTO THE WOODS is now playing through March 3rd. Tickets can be purchased here





 

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