Time to shut the door. Just- no more.: “Into the Woods” at Emerson Colonial Theatre

(L to R) Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus
Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Presented by Emerson Colonial Theatre
A New York City Center Encores Production
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Music directed by John Bell
Choreographed by Lorin Latarro
Music Supervisor: Rob Berman
Puppet design by James Ortiz

March 21 – April 2, 2023
Emerson Colonial Theatre
106 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116

Review by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON, Mass. — The Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning musical Into the Woods is on tour and is now performing at the Emerson Colonial Theatre through April 2. Broadway stars reprising their roles are Montego Glover as The Witch, Stephanie J. Block as The Baker’s Wife, Sebastian Arcelus as The Baker and Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf. Lear deBessonet directs this New York City Center Encores Production. John Bell music directs; Lorin Latarro choreographs; the puppet design is by James Ortiz. 

Boston audiences saw Into the Woods grace the regional stage via the Lyric Stage Company’s 2014 production. It was directed by our own Spiro Veloudos and music directed by Catherine Stornetta. It coincided with the release of the Disney movie in movie theatres that year. The 2023 touring production has the same magic and pizzaz but on a much larger scale. 

Locals scanning the playbill will notice Boston actor Sam Simahk! Simahk played Rapunzel’s Prince in the Lyric’s production in 2014. It’s always nice to see a familiar name. Welcome home and congratulations on your successes!

Nothing beats the original cast recording or performances. If you were lucky enough to have seen the original cast, this tour won’t be the same but it will surely delight. 

Speaking of the original production, one will notice that Broadway has changed considerably since Sondheim and Lapine conceived and birthed Into the Woods. The puppetry, for example, is noticeably more sophisticated. The lighting design has employed all of the technological advances available to its staff. 

Other updates are more personal. The ensemble includes non-white members cast for their talent, not to otherize their marginalization. That same cast is also physically diverse; their bodies span a range of sizes that are also physically fit. Into the Woods has come a long way in 37 years.  

Since it is obvious that the show’s producers worked the diversity and equity angle so hard, it was a sharp shock when director Lear deBessonet and the producers kept the Act I imagery of the blinded step-sisters with canes and dark glasses in the musical. This is bigotry. 

It is, as we in the disabled community say, ableist and cripping up. It took me out of the world of the show. I was unable to enjoy the rest of the performance.

Blind people don’t wear dark glasses anymore. They don’t need them. The aluminum walking canes used in the Broadway touring production are incorrect; a blind person wouldn’t use one to get around. A folding white or red and white mobility cane is a medical device used by a seeing-impaired or blind person. 

That the production observed such hackneyed stereotypes instead of updating to easily googleable contemporary standards tells me two things: the creative and production staff knew that the use of incorrect props is insensitive and ableist; they kept the bit in for laughs anyway. 

What makes both things worse is that Lear deBessonet staged the actresses as if their characters could still see. Narration tells us that their eyes were pecked out. Are the step-sisters blind or not? Is the Narrator reliable or not? Disability shouldn’t be a metaphor for bad storytelling.  

(L to R) Aymee Garcia, Cole Thompson, and Kennedy Kanagawa
Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

It’s time to cut this ableist imagery. It doesn’t matter if it’s performance tradition; racism and sexism are traditional, too. Productions work around these -isms all the time. 

I trusted the creators of this production with its thoughtful casting and staging to be considerate of my community too. The disabled community is the largest of the minority communities in the US. Such aggression is hurtful. 

We, the disabled community, are not the punchline of jokes. We can tell when you’re treating us poorly. We’re people who deserve respect and representation like everyone else. We want to attend the theatre (we have the money), but we’ll abstain if we hear that your production is ableist. 

Ryan J. Haddad’s Dark Disabled Stories is running at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Jessica Chastain’s A Doll’s House, now running at the Hudson Theatre, also stars Michael Patrick Thornton. Thornton uses a wheelchair. Cost of Living ran at the Manhattan Theater Club ran until November 2, 2022. In Boston, Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick was at The Huntington through January 2022.

Disabled people are on our stages. We aren’t a secret that society keeps behind closed doors anymore. It’s unacceptable that such bigotry is kept alive in shows such as Into the Woods.

In a Broadway production full of creative geniuses, you can’t tell me there weren’t better ideas for representing blindness. Sondheim and Lapine got one thing right: we’re all at risk of becoming disabled due to age, accident, or genetics at any moment. 

Into the Woods was otherwise such a lovely production. It’s a pity they let bigotry mar it.

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