Whose “Woods” These Are…

The Skylight delivers first-rate Sondheim.

When Robert Frost came to the woods, he faced at most a pair of diverging roads, and sometimes was content to stay put and watch it snow. But Frost’s New England landscape has nothing on the primeval glade of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical, Into the Woods. Here, the woods are not just lovely, dark and deep, but treacherous, shadowy and downright ominous.

Susan Spencer and Ray Jivoff Photo by Mark Frohna
Susan Spencer and Ray Jivoff. Photo by Mark Frohna.

In his memoir, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim writes that the idea for Into the Woods came partly from a TV special he had pitched to Norman Lear, which gathered a cornucopia of familiar television characters—Archie and Edith, Mary and Lou, Cagney and Lacey and Dr. Kildare—into a single story about a car accident and trip to the hospital. After brainstorming an idea for a fairy tale musical, he and Lapine decided follow that model, mixing up several fairy tales and fancifully weaving the stories together.

It’s a perfect closer for the Skylight Theatre’s season devoted to myths and fairy tales, not just because it combines more fables than you can shake a magic wand at, but because it’s a musical tour de force that captures the wit and intricacy of Sondheim’s work.

It’s a daunting project that can tax the best of Broadway’s voices, and the Skylight does it proud.

Rhonda Rae Busch and Ryan Stajmiger Photo by Mark Frohna
Rhonda Rae Busch and Ryan Stajmiger. Photo by Mark Frohna.

As a piece of music, Into the Woods is more Bach fugue than Schubert song cycle. Songs and melodies weave in and out of each other, eventually leading to the meditative show-stopper, “No One Is Alone.” Like the Skylight’s abbreviated Ring cycle that’s playing down the hall from the Cabot Theatre, there’s a lot of story to get through, and characters often have to assert themselves through intricately interwoven tunes that are ripe with Sondheim’s trademark verbal pyrotechnics.

Jonathan Altman, Karen Estrada and Susan Spencer Photo by Mark Frohna
Jonathan Altman, Karen Estrada and Susan Spencer. Photo by Mark Frohna.

To wit: the opening number, in which we meet three households: the baker (Jonathan Altman) and his wife (Karen Estrada); Jack (Ryan Stajmiger), his mom (Rhonda Rae Busch) and their cow; and Cinderella (Natalie Ford) and company. Sondheim sets up the story with a sort of triple concerto in which similar melodies (all revolving around “I wish!”) are used to tell each family’s story—along with explanations by the bespectacled narrator (Ray Jivoff).

Natalie Ford and Karen Estrada Photo by Mark Frohna
Natalie Ford and Karen Estrada. Photo by Mark Frohna

Of course, there are more storylines to add, and director Edwin Cahill helps his cast deftly knit all this together with light-hearted wit and lots of musical pop (musical direction is by Mark Mandarano). Other than the two glorious ballads, “The Witch’s Lament” (touchingly sung by Susan Spencer) and “No One Is Alone,” there’s a comic, light touch to the song styles, which works perfectly for the cast and the intimate Cabot Theatre space.

It’s good to have Sondheim back again on a major Milwaukee stage, and very good to hear him in such good hands.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.