Signature Theatre remembers Stephen Sondheim with iconic musical ‘Into the Woods’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Into the Woods' at Signature Theatre (Part 1)

There are Broadway “giants in the sky” after Stephen Sondheim’s passing last year.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of his death on Nov. 26, Signature Theatre will perform his iconic musical “Into the Woods” in Shirlington, Virginia, starting Wednesday and running through Jan. 29.

WTOP caught up with actors Alex De Bard, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, and David Merino, who plays Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, for a fun preview of the production.

“Alex and I were in a show together at Signature last year when we got the news of Sondheim’s passing,” Merino told WTOP. “We were in a production of the musical ‘Rent.’ My character in ‘Rent’ had a little tribute line to Sondheim, calling out his name in a list of things that the Bohemians love. I got to say, ‘Sondheim!’ The whole audience erupted.”

Indeed, every time that Signature’s artistic director Matthew Gardiner stops by WTOP, we all sing the praises of Sondheim to the point that the two are now inextricably linked.

“Signature is definitely one of the first things that pops into my head when I think of Sondheim,” De Bard told WTOP. “We all feel Sondheim[‘s] energy in the room all the time. ‘Into the Woods’ was the first musical that they did in the new space. When we walk through the hallways, they have posters. ‘Into the Woods’ is the first one that you see.”

Written in 1987, the story interweaves Brothers Grimm fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella) with the story of a childless baker and his wife. A witch promises to lift their curse of infertility if they can find “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”

“It’s all of your favorite classic fairy tale storylines that start out quite separate,” Merino said. “It’s combining those storylines in this vortex of conflict and drama that we call ‘The Woods.’ What starts out to be just another fun, surface-level fairy tale turns into multiple big reflections and metaphors for life lessons … classic morals twisted into adult themes.”

Elevating James Lapine’s book is the iconic score by Sondheim, including memorable songs like “Giants in the Sky,” “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.”

“‘Giants in the Sky’ is definitely a favorite — David sounds amazing,” De Bard said, to which Merino added: “OK, OK. ‘Stay With Me’ makes me cry almost every time.”

Scenic designer Lee Savage brings it all to life visually by creating a magical woods that intrudes upon the intimate home setting — all with the stage floor on an incline.

“Picture an old Victorian-era home,” Merino said. “The nursery/living-room area is the setting that we have for the entirety of the show, but imagine this room overgrown by the outside world around it, the nature around it. We have vines growing into the windows and tree limbs jutting through walls, cracked walls, exposed slats in the walls and floorboards.”

In this dynamic space, colorful characters sport dazzling attire, including the brightest Red Riding Hood imaginable thanks to costume designer David I. Reynoso.

“All of our costumes are so incredible,” De Bard said. “My cape is one of the brightest reds I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t think a red could be so bright. It is the reddest of reds and the way that it shines across the stage, I love it, I adore it. We were also given permission to use the wolf’s cloak from the 2007 production … so there is history on my back.”

There’s even a surprise Hollywood star voicing the booming giant in Act 2.

“Although this is not a person that is ever shown on stage, this is a person I’ve looked up to since I was a kid and is an icon: Phylicia Rashad gets to voice our giant, which is so exciting! We’ve already gotten to listen to her recordings and it is so epic,” Merino said.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Into the Woods' at Signature Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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