Review: ‘Into the Woods’ strips down classic fairy tales at Emerson Colonial Theatre


Amanda Dee

An audience gathers to see “Into the Woods” at Emerson Colonial Theatre April 22. The show started with a limited engagement on Broadway, but its immense popularity prompted a tour, bringing the story to cities across the country.

Sarah Popeck, news staff

From March 21 through April 2, Boston opened the door into a world of fairytales as  the national tour of “Into the Woods” made its way to Emerson Colonial Theatre.

Adapted from a book by James Lapine and accompanied by music and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, “Into the Woods” ties together multiple familiar stories and takes the audience through an exciting journey for love, family and adventure. The show has more of a stripped-down concert feel than the original as per the vision of director Lear deBessonet. The show started with a limited engagement on Broadway, but its immense popularity prompted a tour, bringing the story to cities across the country.

The start of the play finds a couple, portrayed by Stephanie J. Block and Sebastien Arcelus, struggling to have a child. 

Married in real life, the chemistry between Arcelus and Block is immaculate and their dynamic is perfectly enchanting. Block is no stranger to theatre — in fact, the Broadway veteran is stepping into a role she has dreamed of performing with her husband, as mentioned in the program. She won multiple awards for her portrayal of Cher in “The Cher Show” and had lead roles in “Falsettos,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “9 to 5” and “Wicked.” She has also been seen on screen in a multitude of television shows, such as “Rise” and “Madam Secretary.”

It is soon revealed that a witch has put a spell on the couple’s home, leaving them infertile. Montego Glover, a two-time Drama Desk Award winner who has been seen in “Memphis,” “Les Miserables” and “The Color Purple,” fills the shoes of the Witch with powerful vocals. 

The Witch tells the pair that there is one way to reverse the spell, and it takes four items…

First — the cow as white as milk. The couple runs into the familiar character Jack (Cole Thompson), of the classic fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Jack trades his best friend, a cow, for a bag of magical beans that grow into a beanstalk that leads him to giants in the sky. Thompson made his Broadway debut with the show and has followed along with the production throughout the tour.

Next — the cape as red as blood. Little Red Riding Hood (Katy Geraghty) is threatened by a wolf (Gavin Creel, who also plays Cinderella’s Prince) as he tries to entice her to go astray from her path in the woods. Creel is known for his Tony Award-winning role in “Hello, Dolly!” but was also seen in “Hair” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” among other shows. He is also a prominent figure in London’s West End productions and has produced his own original recordings. 

Third – the hair as yellow as corn, where Rapunzel (Alysia Velez) finds her place. Locked in a tower her entire life, she yearns to see the outside world, especially when she falls in love with a prince. 

Lastly – the slipper as pure as gold. Cinderella desperately wants to go to the festival, meeting the heir to the throne but lets her guard down and falls in love. At this performance, Ellie Fishman stepped into the role of Cinderella, who is typically played by Diane Phelan.

Yet, fairytales don’t always last and, sometimes, stories don’t have a happy ending. The characters face grief and death, and their stories end up being more intertwined than they thought.

“Into the Woods” is a familiar Broadway favorite, and this cast did not miss a beat. With minimalistic and elegant scenic design by David Rockwell, the audience is able to focus on the vocals and the stories. The costumes, created by Andrea Hood, are crafted to be simplistic with little variance for the characters to wear throughout both acts. Additionally, the set allows for an open stage where the audience can eagerly watch conductor John Bell and local musicians bring an incredible Sondheim score to life.

There are a handful of moments in which the theatrics are lacking, such as an underwhelming Cinderella dress transformation or the portrayal of giants by using wired boots and two cast members with sound effects. Some of the minimalistic elements had too much simplicity that made important scenes – including the defeat of the giants in the second act – feel lackluster. 

That said, the minimalism found in this staging does work on occasion, as it contrasts the fairytale themes in the show by subverting the audience’s expectations of what a magical world entails. From the modern take created by the designers, it communicates that there is more than what meets the eye.

Furthermore, it employs puppeteering, adding a new level of characterization to Jack’s cow, Milky White, handled by Kennedy Kanagawa, and the birds, handled by Josh Breckenridge. Personifying these animals allows the audience to sympathize with them in key moments of the show. The audience let out audible, distraught gasps when Jack had to sell Milky White. It adds a layer of depth that is unexpected, and they are an essential and unique part of the show that is exclusive to this production.

The cast added a new element to their common characters and brought a new perspective to the story through their portrayal that the audience would otherwise never see in their classic tales. Moreover, with a diverse set of actors, the show allows for new stars, like Thompson, to shine alongside well-known faces, such as Block. It promotes inclusivity in the theatre industry and is a fresh take on the classic.