WASHINGTON — For the past 30 years, fractured fairy tales have captured our zeitgeist with postmodern magic, be it the children’s storybook “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” (1989), the animated flick “Shrek” (2001), the Broadway smash “Wicked” (2003) or ABC’s popular TV series “Once Upon a Time” (2011).
But it all started with the 1987 Broadway musical “Into the Woods,” which garnered 10 Tony nominations and won three, including Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim), Best Book of a Musical (James Lapine) and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason) — a fantastic feat considering it was competing against Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“Everyone knows these stories, these characters and what they symbolize, so we all can easily relate to them,” actress Eleasha Gamble told WTOP. “We see them dealing with things we deal with in life. So what better way than taking these stories we all know so well and making us apply it to … the struggles we all go through day to day? Here’s these fairy tales where we think, ‘Well, their lives are perfect. They got everything they wanted,’ but they still have the same issues that we go through.”
Written by Sondheim and Lapine, the plot interweaves famous Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel, as well as the original story of a Baker and his Wife trying to reverse a family curse in order to have a child.
“In this fictional kingdom, they all happen to cohabitate together,” Gamble said. “Then the Second Act tells you what happens after everyone gets what they want. What happens after ‘happily ever after.'”
Born at Washington Hospital Center and raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, Gamble went to Good Counsel High School before attending Catholic University where she discovered “Into the Woods.”
“We had a music library there and they used to have laserdiscs — [remember those?] — I remember I used to borrow it and take it to the library and just watch it; it’s so gorgeous,” Gamble said. “Then I did a production of it in college. I was The Witch. And then a few years later I did it at Signature Theatre, opening their new space … playing The Witch there as well. So I’ve had a nice little history with it.”
Now, she returns to D.C. from New York, switching roles from The Witch to The Baker’s Wife.
“It is a change, but it’s nice to discover another strong female in this show,” Gamble said. “When we first meet her, she’s The Baker’s Wife. We don’t know if her name is Joan or Jill. … What we discover about her as they go into the woods [is] that she’s incredibly smart and quick and thinks on her feet. … She’s kind of a woman out of her time. If she wasn’t set in the time period, she would probably be running a company. … How smart and driven, but also how much she loves her husband and family.”
The role earned Emily Blunt a Golden Globe nomination in the 2014 movie starring Anna Kendrick, James Corden and Meryl Streep. But if you saw the film, expect a more stripped-down version here.
“This version is very different from most productions,” Gamble said. “We have basically broken it down. Typically, this has a nice robust company. There’s only 11 of us on stage. But what’s wonderful about it is it really makes the audience use their imagination. We take you on the journey with us.”
This stripped-down approach applies not only to the cast but also the visuals.
“It’s a really cool set, but everything is right there to see,” Gamble said. “It’s very minimalistic in that regard. … We don’t paint everything for you. There’s not displays [nor] special effects. It’s all practical where you can see what’s happening. … We go for the truth of what’s actually going on with these people. It’s not just, ‘Here’s the fairy tale and it’s a nice bow!’ There’s nothing superficial about it.”
No matter the visual presentation, the fantastic music elevates it to the rafters, including hit numbers like “Giants in the Sky,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “It Takes Two” and “Moments in the Woods.”
“What’s great about this production is that we play the instruments,” Gamble said. “There is no orchestra. It’s us playing on stage. … It’s really great because we get to support each other during our different numbers. … When you’re not on stage, you get to sit back and play for someone else.”
One of the most important numbers is “Children Will Listen” with a take-away message for parents.
“It’s so poignant,” Gamble said. “It’s a great reminder as adults: What are we telling our children? What are we teaching our children? As it says, they’ll listen and sometimes depending on what we say, it could turn back on us. So you just have to be really attentive to what we say to children.”
In this way, the show means different things to different viewers at different stages of life.
“Every time you see it, you pull something else,” Gamble said. “It hits you at weird different points in your life. One time you watch it, this specific storyline might trigger things in your head and heart, and the next time you see it you go, ‘Oh! I never followed that! That never touched me before!’ It’s just a blossom that keeps [blooming], there’s new things to discover as you keep pulling leaves away.”
The show is recommended for ages 8 and up.
“It’s great for the family, it’ll pique your interest in music theater,” Gamble said. “It’s just a great show full of great music, great acting and a wonderful story for all ages. Come on out! We’d love to see ya.”
Click here for ticket info. Listen to the full conversation with “Into the Woods” star Eleasha Gamble below:
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