It was a frantic dash to the finish, but the carpenters have departed and the Signature Theater is settling into its space with a downright spunky production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” trumpeting a bold new era for the D.C. company.
After performing for 13 years in a converted bumper-plating facility nicknamed “the garage,” where it garnered a national reputation for its musicals, Signature finally has elbow room — a stylishly spartan facility in Arlington, Va., featuring two black-box theaters and all the necessary trimmings. The county-owned building can even host marquee performers with their own dressing rooms, a radical concept for the bohemian troupe.
Artistic director Eric Schaeffer planned from the start to inaugurate the space with “Woods,” and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s taken a decidedly impish tone to the fractured fairy tale saga and maintains it even through the sobering second act. For a director not afraid of the dark, especially when staging Sondheim, the approach is refreshing. More importantly, he finds just the right interpretation that neither trivializes nor belabors Lapine’s intricate book.
The tactic includes creating devilishly inviting characters in roles large and small. Among them: Tiny-voiced Lauren Williams’ beguiling mixture of innocence and attitude as Little Red Riding Hood; Erin Driscoll’s open-mouthed Rapunzel, chirping and whining from her woodsy tower; the two princes (James Moye and Sean MacLaughlin), who bound on and off stage like twin gazelles; Cinderella’s diabolically evil family (Channez McQuay, Priscilla Cuellar and Florrie Bagel); and an effeminate steward (Matt Conner).
Principal roles are also in good hands. Daniel Cooney and April Harr Blandin excel as the virtuous baker and his wife, who seek to remove a curse put on them by the kingdom’s wicked witch (the delightfully sinister Eleasha Gamble).
Stephen Gregory Smith and Donna Migliaccio are convincing as the crafty Jack and his protective mother. Stephanie Waters is the picture of sincerity as Cinderella, while Harry Winter anchors reliably as the narrator and mysterious man. And if the voice of the giant sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a recorded Angela Lansbury intoning those menacing threats to terrorized townsfolk.
The production appears to utilize every inch of the spacious yet intimate 299-seat Max Theater, with its 29-foot ceilings, six catwalks and ample room to maneuver. A 15-member orchestra is perched in view on a balcony, while the unamplified cast performs on a bare floor, surrounded by the audience on three sides.
Robert Perdziola’s tiered set features Rapunzel’s soaring tower, a raised platform and hanging vines everywhere. He also designed the colorful costumes.
While the theater’s sound-cushioning devices clearly present a challenge for some cast members to project to the corners, the troupe otherwise appeared totally at home in its new confines on a festive opening night. Signature opens its second space, the smaller Ark Theater, later this month.