by Jenn McKee
Wed, 02/21/2024

It’s fitting that I watched Encore Musical Theatre Company’s new production of Into the Woods with my 12-year-old daughter.

Not just because the girl can sing every word of the show’s patter song (“Your Fault”)—she used to fall asleep listening to the show’s cast recording each night—but also because she now lives in that interstitial, fog-laden forest known as middle school, where preteens blindly fumble their way out of childhood.

And frankly, if I had to name one show that’s about the terrifyingly fraught and difficult process of growing up, it would be Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

A fairy-tale mashup that premiered on Broadway in 1987—long before the word “mashup” became such a regular part of our lexicon—Woods interweaves the stories of Cinderella (Ash Moran), Rapunzel (Lucia Flowers), Little Red Riding Hood (Sienna Berkseth), and Jack (Tsumari Patterson) and the Beanstalk.

How? By way of a cursed baker (Marcus Jordan) and his wife (Jessica Grové), who can’t have children until they gather the four items requested by the old witch next door (Jennifer Horne). But even when the couple succeeds, and everyone—fairy-tale protagonists included—gets what they want, in its darker second act Woods dares to venture beyond “happily ever after” and ask, “OK, now what?”

That is one reason why this accessible, Sondheim-with-training-wheels stage musical, with its wickedly sharp book by James Lapine, never gets old (unlike, for example, Sondheim’s Company—Fight Me!). Yet even the most timeless shows can benefit from artistic experimentation and play, and in this spirit, director/choreographer Matthew Brennan has created a production that eschews Woods‘ magical world roots in favor of something more self-consciously theatrical.

Marilee Dechart’s unconventional costume design, for one, embodies this vision. Cinderella flees from the ball in a sparkly pantsuit instead of a gown; Little Red sports a fitted, decidedly hood-free red leather jacket; the princes (Nicholas Kraft and Marcus Calderon) each wear an asymmetrical blazer, with an epaulet on just one shoulder; and Jack’s chain-smoking mom (Sarah B. Stevens) looks like she just punched out from a shift at a nearby motel or diner. 

Similarly, Sarah Tanner’s set design includes a rustic trailer that serves as a bakery and stands in for Rapunzel’s tower, and a lattice ironwork backdrop is overgrown with weeds (a la The Secret Garden). 

More broadly, Brennan’s Woods employs a whimsical puppet show, uses the entire theater as its stage, and, in a sense, the play begins at its endpoint, so that the actors must recover from the show’s last performance and reset the pieces and props for yet another telling.

Encore’s production is thus looser and less literal in its approach, reinforcing the idea that these age-old narratives that we grow up absorbing and passing down have, at this point, a ritualistic and performative element to them—so that they ring less satisfying and more hollow when they’re inevitably confronted by the complexities of a real, lived life. This is absolutely in keeping with Woods‘ story arc, of course.

But whether you embrace Brennan’s approach to the material or not, there’s simply no denying the staggering level of vocal talent he’s assembled on Encore’s stage for Woods. In a word: WOW.

Having covered Encore since the company opened its doors in 2008 (in its original Broad Street location)—when a rushed, wobbly production of Evita put a couple of pros on stage with eager, but far less trained, local amateurs—I can now say I’m officially bowled over by the company’s evolution over these many years. Encore now draws talent from a pool that includes touring productions and highly esteemed training programs, and the results, in the case of Woods, are nothing short of swoon-worthy.

To the point where highlighting specific performances is tricky, because the whole Woods ensemble, guided by music director Frank E. Pitts, slaps (to quote my teenager). But if I must: Moran’s not just a powerhouse vocalist, but a skilled emotional interpreter, too; Patterson imbues Jack with such boyish charm and energy that we come to feel as protective of him as his beleaguered mother does; Berkseth and Stevens deploy cynicism to cash in on some of the show’s more subtle comedic opportunities; and Horne, as the show’s larger-than-life witch, mesmerized me from her first entrance.

Yes, the performance I watched on Friday night was plagued by some tech issues (mics going out, audio feedback, etc.), but frankly, when a production has this much going for it, such flukes are quickly forgiven and forgotten. 

And it’s interesting to note that, for me, a key turning point in Encore’s development as a company arrived by way of a more traditional 2015 production of Woods, directed by cofounder Dan Cooney, and starring Brennan as the Baker. It was the strongest show that Encore had presented up to that point.

But whenever Brennan steps into the director’s seat at Encore (Sweeney ToddAssassins, etc.), his biggest gift involves developing a unique and compelling concept through which he sees and frames an entire show, thereby making the familiar feel new again. Sometimes, these ventures involve big swing artistic risks, and they don’t always land; but I’m always more than happy to go along for the ride and see.