- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2007

It’s been said that it takes at least three months to physically adapt to a new space, and it will be fascinating to watch Signature Theatre get comfortable in a gorgeous new building, which is as airy and dramatic as its old garage was low-ceilinged and limited.

The Sondheim musical about what happens after happily ever after, “Into the Woods,” opens the new theater — not with a grand flourish, but with a respectable and somewhat prosaic production directed by Eric Schaeffer.

The expanded capabilities of the space are apparent as soon as you step into the Max Theatre, where set and costume designer Robert Perdziola has created an enchanted forest of verdigris foliage draped like a canopy over the stage, a chimney shaped like a witch’s hat, a sweep of stone stairs leading to the orchestra, and the ivy-covered remains of a castle. The outlandishly festooned costumes resemble a children’s book illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.

“Into the Woods” is a big, brainy musical that takes classic fairy tales and gives them an adult, sardonic spin. Instead of happiness, there’s disappointment.

Wishes are granted, but at a price. Unexpected riches are showered with consequences and handsome princes are not all they’re cracked up to be.

James Lapine’s archly observed book blends the stories of “Jack (Stephen Gregory Smith) and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood” (Lauren Williams), “Cinderella” (Stephanie Waters) and “Rapunzel” (Erin Driscoll) with a new tale involving a baker (Daniel Cooney) and his wife (April Harr Blandin), who struggle to lift a witch’s (Eleasha Gamble) curse that prevents them from having children.

The first act is a bucolic fantasy, as Little Red Riding Hood — who underneath that red cloak is one tough cookie — tarries with the Wolf (James Moye), whose song, “Hello, Little Girl” and comic pelvic thrusts suggest that something else is growling other than his stomach.

Jack, a simple soul, much to the dismay of his mother (Donna Migliacccio), counts Milky White the cow as his best friend. The baker and his wife tear through the woods in pursuit of the items needed to break the spell and the witch tries to protect Rapunzel by keeping her locked in a tower, her smothering worries exquisitely expressed in the song “Our Little World.” However, both Rapunzel and Cinderella are discovered by princes (Sean MacLaughlin and Mr. Moye), and their duet, “Agony,” is a witty and soaring tribute to the irresistible allure of the chase.

In Act II, the Grimms’ fairy tales become grimmer as the characters grapple with reality and the ire of a “giantess” (voiced by none other than Angela Lansbury), who squishes people and property in her rage.

“Into the Woods” contains some of Mr. Sondheim’s most far-reaching and intricate music, with dastardly lyrics and rhyme schemes that not everyone can master.

Musical director and conductor Jon Kalbfleisch brings out the layers and somber colorations of the score, which is superbly performed by a 15-piece orchestra.

While there is nothing gravely wrong with Signature’s “Into the Woods,” nothing particularly inspiring stands out. The production clips along at an agreeable pace, and is well-sung, but an overall blandness pervades. The performances are all of a piece as well, with Miss Gamble never capturing the grandeur and neediness of the witch, and her big number, “Children Will Listen,” is emotionally unsatisfying. Miss Waters is subdued and watery as Cinderella and Mr. Cooney paints a sullen portrait as the baker, while Miss Blandin barely registers as the baker’s wife.

Cast members who bring striking quirkiness and sophistication to the roles include Miss Williams as the campily plucky Red Riding Hood, Mr. Moye and Mr. MacLaughlin as the vainglorious princes, and Florrie Bagel, Priscilla Cuellar and Channez McQuay as Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother, who strike the right note of ridiculous hauteur every time they traipse onstage.

The overall perky sameness of tone undercuts Mr. Sondheim’s serious theme that we must choose our words and actions with care because children are listening to our tales and watching us to find ways to cope in the real world.

**1/2

WHAT: “Into the Woods,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 2800 South Stafford St., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 25.

TICKETS: $37 to $63

PHONE: 703/820-9771

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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