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REVIEW: Into the Woods and Over the Rainbow (Guthrie Theater)

Cinderella (Emily Tyra) is haunted by the memory and voice of her dead mother (Anna Hashizume) in the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Into the Woods. Photo by Dan Norman.

Do you like Sondheim, tongue-in-cheek plays on the old and familiar, or stellar music? Do you like wonderfully engaging acting, and stories where small actions have big consequences? Do you want entertainment where your sense of time vanishes for more than an hour at a time, and where you wish that things would keep going afterwards? If your answer to any of these is “Yes”, then the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Into the Woods, now playing at its Wurtele Thrust Stage in Minneapolis, is a can’t-miss attraction.

For those otherwise unfamiliar, Into the Woods is a sort of colliding set of fairy tales set to one of the most memorable musical theatre scores of the 20th century, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. The script is eminently quotable, the music catchy and moving, and the combined product so strong that it managed to win Best Book and Best Score when pitted against Phantom of the Opera at the 1988 Tony Awards. So far so good, but what does the Guthrie’s production bring to its now well-trodden stage?

Rapunzel’s Prince (Sasha Andreev) and Cinderella’s Prince (John Yi) share a moment (not that type of moment) in the woods, astride their steeds. The stylized theatricality of the Guthrie Theater’s Into the Woods production features scenic designs by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and Valérie Thérèse Bart. Photo by Dan Norman.

Quite a bit, actually. This production is directed by Sarna Lapine, the niece of bookwriter and original Broadway director James Lapine. Sarna has made something of a speciality in creating radical re-imagined productions of Sondheim and other classic musicals – productions that, rather than alienating, make use new angles and presentation to find new beats of humor and emotional tugs. Much of this is smoothly interwoven, in a way that newcomers to Into the Woods will not even recognize the twist; others, such as the casting of KPOP star John Yi as the cow Milky White (usually a puppet, but now Yi’s alter ego when not playing Cinderella’s Prince).

Yi/Milky White’s tricycling across the stage is absurdly funny enough, but the wordless expressions and bats of eye in response to nearby dialogue regularly set the audience giggling and snickering. Measures like this inject a great sense of freshness into a familiar classic, without compromising or undermining the dramatic beats. So, too, are the costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart and the scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams – the wolf costume worn by Sasha Andreev being a particularly elegant standout.

Jack (Trevor James, right) leads his pet cow Milky Way (John Yi) away to market. Photo by Dan Norman.

There are plenty of distinctive performances that will have audiences eagerly looking forward to different characters’ return. As Cinderella, Emily Tyra is always riveting on stage. Suzie Juul steals almost every scene that she is in as Little Red Riding Hood, and Robert Knight’s Baker is endearing and sympathetic.

This isn’t a traditional journey Into the Woods, but that is not at all in its disfavor. And Lisa Howard’s Witch is awesome.

Witch (Lisa Howard) vs. Baker (Robert Knight) and Baker’s Wife (Madeline Trumble). Photo by Dan Norman.

Into the Woods plays through August 13 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine