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Q&A: ‘Into the Woods’ brings fractured fairy tales to Ford’s

Jade Jones plays Little Red Ridinghood and Christopher Mueller plays First Wolf in "Into the Woods" at Ford's Theatre. (Courtesy Carol Rosegg)

Fractured fairy tales have captured our imaginations for decades, from “Shrek” (2001) to “Wicked” (2003) to “Once Upon a Time” (2011), but it all started with the 1987 Broadway musical “Into the Woods.”

The show earned 10 Tony nominations, winning three, including Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim), Best Book of a Musical (James Lapine) and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason).

Now, you have just one week left to see the show at Ford’s Theatre through May 22.

“It’s an interweaving of many different fairy tale stories that we all know from our youth,” actor Evan Casey told WTOP. “There’s a lot of familiarity that people will already have going in, which obviously lends the musical an immediate way of accessibility for audiences. But then the way Sondheim and Lapine weave them together and layer their own elements onto them and go beyond what happens after ‘happily ever after’ puts a whole new spin on everything.”

The plot interweaves famous Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, as well as the original story of a baker and his wife seeking out a witch to reverse a family curse in order to have a child.

“What’s great about the show [is] immediately it’s laid out quite clearly what everyone wants,” Casey said. “Everyone’s objective is quite clear: Cinderella wants to go to the ball, the Baker and his Wife desperately want a child, the Witch wants this curse reversed for her own needs. So, right off the bat it’s immediately laid out for the audience what everybody wants and what everybody is going to be searching for, which is part of what makes the story so great.”

Casey plays the desperate Baker to Rachel Zampelli’s Witch, a role made famous by Bernadette Peters on Broadway and Meryl Streep in the 2014 movie of the same name.

“If you want to compare me to Meryl Streep, I’ll take it,” Zampelli joked. “Her objective is to become young and beautiful again. She’s cursed, old and ugly and finally figures out a way to make that happen, but she can’t do it herself. … She enlists the Baker and his Wife. They need something very badly, she needs something very badly, so if they succeed, everybody wins.”

The songbook features a string of catchy Sondheim gems: “Giants in the Sky,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “It Takes Two,” “Moments in the Woods,” “Children Will Listen” and “No More.”

“It’s one of the most accessible shows Sondheim has written,” Casey said. “For a lot of people with musical theater backgrounds, we adore Sondheim and love everything that he does, but some of his works have been criticized, rightly or wrongly, for not always being accessible to the typical theatergoer. This one, because of the story they’re pulling from and the joy within the score, is immediately accessible to audiences and one of the most family-friendly.”

These songs are married to magical visuals by director Peter Flynn (“Ragtime,” “1776”).

“We have some pretty cool projection elements, which Peter Flynn wanted to incorporate,” Zampelli said. “Cinderella’s mother is a tree and he uses a projection that is one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in a show that I’ve been a part of. The magic is very simple — there’s projections and then there’s things that humans do — so it’s really cool how we create a world where giants exist and trees sing and witches have powers. It’s very effective.”

Meanwhile, the costumes clearly distinguish between the classes of characters.

“Our costume designer Wade Laboissonniere did a really great job both in terms of keeping it in the world of fairy tale but also pushing his own extremes,” Casey said. “Things like the Stepsisters and Stepmother going with outlandish colors, size, scope and shape, but also diversifying class between people who have more labor-intensive lives like the Baker and his Wife and Jack and his Mother versus the upper class of the princes. You’ll see lots of colors and lots of things that evoke that immediate ‘jumping out of the picture book’ kind of feel.”

So far, audiences have been most impressed by the Witch’s transformation.

“I go from completely old, haggard, ugly to young, beautiful, hot — and it all happens in a few seconds, seemingly,” Zampelli said. “The transformation is pretty incredible. People ask me more about the transformation than any other thing after the play.”

The role is a full-circle moment for Zampelli, who grew up in Bowie, Maryland.

“My first professional show was ‘Into the Woods,'” Zampelli said. “It was at New Rep outside of Boston. I played Florinda and I understudied the Baker’s Wife and the Witch. … People ask all the time, ‘What roles do you really want to play? What’s your bucket list?’ I really don’t have those … except for the Witch. My uncle gave me the CD for Christmas when I was 11 and I disappeared into the bedroom … and came out two hours later with my Discman like, ‘I’m going to play the Witch one day.’ So, this is like your inner child’s biggest [dream].”

It’s also extra special for Casey, who grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland.

“Scott Sedar, who plays my father and narrator in this show, was also in my first professional show at Olney Theatre back in 2001, ‘Bye Bye Birdie,'” Casey said. “There is something special about this show for people who grew up in our generation. When we were introduced to it, we were at that molding age. … I can see that again now. My son, who’s 5 years old, has come to see the show, both acts, all the way through. … He’s amazed by it! There’s literally a magical quality both in terms of what’s created theatrically but also in terms of the innovation of lyrics and music and how the story is interwoven that really engages the young mind.”

Young audiences will have an easy time seeing the stage at the intimate Ford’s.

“It’s kind of a dream because it is intimate enough to where the audience can see your eyes and hear your breath and you can feel them,” Zampelli said. Casey added, “Being able to do it in a space where you can actually see their faces, where they can actually see your face, where performing to the back of the audience doesn’t mean 400 feet away, you feel very much like you are a part of this narrative together as opposed to two separate entities.”

In the end, it’s the perfect balance of childlike wonder and mature depth of theme.

“The reason this show is so wonderful is that it brings the great, tremendous, sidesplitting joy of a farce and a high comedy with the great emotional depth of a truly dramatic tale,” Casey said. “By the time you get to the end, you see and experience deeper truths because of what Sondheim and Lapine are able to enlighten throughout the course of the show.”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full chat with Casey and Zempelli below:

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