‘Into the Woods’ and star from Stanwood cast a magical spell spell on audience

  • By Theresa Goffredo Herald writer
  • Thursday, November 1, 2007 2:18pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Once upon a time there was a musical that was among the best in all the land and people came from miles around and paid many a pretty penny to see it and when they left the theater their wish had come true: They were utterly entertained.

And yes, that beginning was a bit cheesy, but how often do we get to begin a story with those magical words? Mr. Genius of modern musicals, Stephen Sondheim, and author James Lapine couldn’t resist a beginning like that either. So with “Once Upon a Time,” the lyricist and the writer take us on a magical journey, steeped in symbolism, rich in metaphor and with enough twists in the end that clearly made “happily ever after” come with a price.

Such is the musical “Into the Woods,” playing through Nov. 10 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

The journey can be seen as simply a journey: the trip a baker and his wife must take through the woods to lift a witch’s curse. But the characters’ journeys are also so much more and so varied, depending on which fairy tale character is in the spotlight. Rapunzel must journey outside her sheltered world; Little Red Riding Hood must choose whether to journey off the path; Cinderella must journey inside her soul to determine whether she wants a dream or something real.

There’s more, but you get the point. And in the end, these story lines aren’t tied up nicely in a pretty bow. There’s lots of grim in this Grimm-based fairy tale. Spoiling any of that would mean a certain curse. But be assured that watching all the stories unfold is spellbinding.

Being under the spell of Sondheim is a unique experience, especially in “Into the Woods,” where it would have been so easy to use the occasion of a fairy tale to play rhyme time. But no. Whenever you think you know where the line is going, Sondheim throws in a little hop, skip and jump that leaves you grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

Sondheim is difficult to sing. Ireland Woods made it look easy.

Ireland is Stanwood’s own child star in this production. At 10 years old, she is said to be the youngest to ever play Little Red Riding Hood. This is her 5th Avenue debut but, more than that, she’s a newcomer to the Seattle theater scene and has only been in two shows prior to “Woods,” both of them locally produced.

As only a fifth-grader, Ireland could have been a risky proposition. Instead, she unleashed a powerhouse performance that defied her age and beguiled the audience. Her voice was pure and clear. Her stage presence was confident with the right touch of comic timing, as in her scene with the Wolf, played deliciously by Michael Hunsaker. Ireland’s delivery of “I Know Things Now,” sparkled like a gold slipper and gave a beautiful showcase to Sondheim’s smart way with words: “And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, and though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.

“Now I know, don’t be scared. Granny is right, just be prepared.

“Isn’t it nice to know a lot? … And a little bit … not.”

The wolf experience was a tough one for Little Red Riding Hood and it changed her. Ireland matured along with the role and we were there with her, from her sweet-roll eater part to the girl who might be carrying a concealed weapons permit. Ireland made it all work.

The speaking members of the cast for “Into the Woods” gave princely performances, across the board. And never underestimate the importance of the nonspeaking role. Milky White, Jack’s cow and best friend, was like the milky white frosting on this tasty theatrical morsel. Give that cow, played by Eric Brotherson, a sugar cube.

Perhaps a bittersweet part of “Into the Woods” was the set. The functionality of the set was clever enough, with the revolving set giving a tumultuous effect to the fleeing and flitting actors. The design, though, made it appear more like a jungle than a woods with lots of tendril-like branches, as opposed to a Pacific Northwest woods that would surely have been a stand of fir.

That can be overlooked, however, as the Sondheim selection of songs from “Giants in the Sky” to “Agony” to “Last Midnight” to “Children Will Listen” fill those “woods” with lyrical wonder.

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