‘Into the Woods’ at Berkeley Playhouse is good, nice and just right

photo of a live performance
Ben Krantz Studio/Courtesy

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There is something remarkably comforting about “Into the Woods,” likely the result of the musical’s cast of nostalgic fairy tale characters or the refreshing humor sprinkled throughout its dialogue. Yet, no matter how familiar the musical may seem at first glance, “Into the Woods” hardly feels redundant or boring. Berkeley Playhouse’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s classic musical (playing from now until Dec. 23) is a shining success and will prove entertaining for young audiences and adults alike.

The first thing viewers will notice when stepping into Berkeley Playhouse is the production’s immaculate set design. A towering, multi-level platform set covered with colorful autumn leaves both stuns audiences with its beauty and allows for lots of movement on the stage throughout the show. The set design cleverly gives the stage an expansive feel, and prepares audiences for an equally quality performance from the moment they take their seats.

“Into the Woods” combines many classic fairy tales, including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella” and more. Each of these narratives are linked together by the story of a childless baker (Reggie D. White) and his wife (Rebecca Pingree) — inspired by the Grimm brothers’ “Rapunzel” — who must collect four specific items for a witch (Alexis Lazear) in order to lift the curse she has placed on their home which prevents them from conceiving. Weaving these stories together is not only incredibly clever, but gives each a new spin. The musical strikes a balance between capturing the essence of classic characters without being overtly predictable while simultaneously subverting audience’s expectations — one of the show’s greatest successes.

Few musicals are paced as well as “Into the Woods” — the plot is dense but never feels rushed nor gives audiences the chance to become distracted or bored. The musical offers opportunities to laugh and revel in feelings of relief from simple resolutions to humorous problems, while also eliciting frustration and sadness from viewers. “Into the Woods” is a multi-layered hodgepodge of emotions, and the result is something that is both refreshingly simple yet deeply nuanced. The musical explores themes such as love, loss, freedom and desire. Even characters and plot points designed for comedic relief meaningfully reflect these vital elements of the show. “Into the Woods” is easy to follow and enjoy, but it offers viewers food for thought to contemplate once they have left the theater. The musical is a beautiful balancing act of tones that has something for everyone.

The music in “Into the Woods” is also spectacular. Full of Sondheim’s recognizable style, where lyrics and rhythm particularly shine, each song is catchy, entertaining and moves the story along with ease. Several songs feature nearly every character, highlighting their distinctive personalities and desires clearly, cleverly and concisely. The dense and fast-paced prologues to each act, “Into the Woods” and “So Happy,” keep audiences on the edge of their seats and engaged for the entirety of the next hour. There is not a dull song in the musical; its memorable lyrics and tunes are sure to stick in one’s head even after the show concludes. 

The cast of Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Into the Woods” is also extraordinarily talented. Actors know dramatic moments from comedic ones and perform them accordingly. Each performer understands their character’s  defining traits through and through. Erika Cospin’s Little Red Riding Hood is youthfully mischievous, Romelo Urbl’s Jack is not so bright, but well-intentioned, Marah Sotelo’s Cinderella embodies yearning and John Mells and David Tuttle’s princes are hilariously arrogant. White and Pingree have fantastic chemistry on-stage and wonderfully play the lead couple. Lazear also boasts a fantastic, powerful voice with a strong presence fit for her role as the witch. This marvelous cast at Berkeley Playhouse truly takes the production to the next level.

A high quality production through and through and extremely fun, go “Into the Woods” to Berkeley Playhouse for a delightfully good time.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].