Five actors in stand in line on a stage featuring a gloomy forest background, with fallen trees and a gray cloudy dome behind them. At left is the Baker, carrying a variety of tools and weapons on his belt. Next to him is Jack in a brown leather jacket and boots. The Witch stands center, looking outward with her arms partly raised, wearing a strapless purple gown covered with silver glittery streaks that suggest lightning. Cinderella stands to the right of the Witch in her ragged kitchen maid's clothes, holding a baby wrapped in a blanket. On the far right is Little Red in a red dress with a cloak of wolf fur over her shoulders.
From left: Stephen Schellhardt, Will Koski, Natalie Weiss, Hannah Louise Fernandes, and Lucy Panush in Into the Woods at Paramount Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods premiered three years before Robert Bly’s Iron John sent men into the wilderness as part of the “mythopoetic men’s movement,” complete with sweat lodges, drum circles, chanting, and other rituals designed to restore a pre-industrialization notion of masculinity, combined with Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” narratives. The musical seems to have outlasted the Iron John fad, and I don’t think it’s just because it’s one of the more accessible works in the Sondheim canon.

Sure, it’s based on familiar fairy tales, including the stories of Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk, into which book writer Lapine wove the original story of a childless couple: the Baker and the Baker’s Wife. The couple’s desire to placate the next-door witch by obtaining four items (a red cloak, hair as gold as cornsilk, a silver slipper . . . well, you see where this is going) is what sends them to the forest, where—at least in the first act—permanent magic seems to overcome temporary darkness. Grandmothers pop up out of the innards of wolves, none the worse for wear. Princesses find their princes. A simple lad slays a giant after stealing his gold (and gets his dead cow restored to him, to boot). And a man and a woman finally get a baby.

Then the second act happens, and all hell (embodied as the widow of the slain giant) breaks loose.

Into the Woods
Through 3/19: Wed 1:30 and 7 PM, Thu 7 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 1 and 5:30 PM; open and closed captions Wed 3/15 7 PM, ASL interpretation Fri 3/17; Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, 630-896-6666,, $28-$79

But in watching the gorgeous revival of Into the Woods now onstage at Paramount Theatre in Aurora, new resonances and nuances I’ve not fully appreciated before came into view. Codirectors Jim Corti and Trent Stork certainly use the large stage and 16-piece orchestra to good effect: Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design, José Santiago’s lights, Paul Deziel’s projections, and Jordan Ross’s costumes look lush and fantastical (with special kudos to puppet designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock for creating Milky White, Jack’s beloved cow, and an astonishing horse ridden by Cinderella’s Prince). Kory Danielson’s musical direction is crisp, and Kasey Alfonso’s choreography manages to be both intimate and expansive as needed.

So on one level, it’s a cunning riposte to fairy-tale notions of happily ever after. But that’s far too easy a bar to clear. What I felt bubbling along under the surface throughout Paramount’s production was a quiet but urgent question that has only grown more important in recent years: in a society addicted to individualism, what do we owe to each other as members of a community, even when overcome with personal grief and loss?

Natalie Weiss’s Witch, whose long-ago curse is the catalyst for the journeys all the other characters take, is also the harsh conscience of the tale, particularly in “The Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen.” In the former, she challenges the survivors of the giantess to face their own greed and selfishness. “No, of course what really matters/Is the blame/Somebody to blame.” (In the case of the Iron John movement, contemporary feminism came under attack as depriving men of their primordial purpose.)

A community built on transactionality, as we see in the first act, is ill-equipped for altruism. Or, as Larry Yando’s wry Narrator tells us, “These were not people familiar with making choices.” I know it’s cliche as hell to keep viewing theater through a pandemic lens, but that line hit me, as did so many other moments, as an encapsulation of what happens when people’s comfortable assumptions about how life should unfold run headfirst into unpleasant realities beyond their control.

This isn’t an overtly political rendering of the musical—that would be entirely tedious and tendentious. But it is a staging that, through both the strength of the performances and the spectacle of the setting, asks us to consider who we are in relation to each other, even (or especially) when we’ve been traumatized. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, but I especially enjoyed newcomer Will Koski’s naive Jack, Stephen Schellhardt and Sarah Bockel’s Baker and Baker’s Wife (so infused with a love that has matured into something neither quite recognizes until too late), Lucy Panush’s tough-girl Little Red, and (for pure comic relief) Alex Syiek’s glam-rock Wolf. Syiek is also excellent as Cinderella’s Prince, a fatuous man whose habit of looking backward before exiting the stage quietly illustrates how he’s torn between the comforts he knows and the new infatuations he craves. 

Into the Woods reminds us that we don’t need to go out of our way to find rituals for growth. The woods are everywhere. Getting through life is its own ritual. At some point, we decide if we’re the infallible heroes of our own story, bent on our mortal ambitions, or part of a larger ecosystem of flawed people coming to realize that “No One Is Alone.”