Matthew Gardiner’s ‘Into the Woods’ casts a spell decades in the making



Blame is in abundance on a late-October afternoon at Signature Theatre’s Shirlington space as the cast of “Into the Woods” rehearses the Act 2 patter song “Your Fault.” Reeling from tragedy, the character of the Baker has cooked up a game of culpability hot potato with Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Witch in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 fairy tale mash-up.

As Matthew Gardiner observes from a corner of the rehearsal studio, the musical’s director-choreographer interjects and instructs with a calmness that belies “Your Fault’s” hurried tempo.

Go ‘Into the Woods’ at Signature Theatre. Come out charmed.

“This is hard, guys, but don’t let it get manic,” he tells his cast. “Its pace is defensive, but not manic.” Later, he decides to tweak the scene’s movement on the fly and add a moment when the Baker uneasily circles Jack. “This might get too busy,” he concedes, “but let’s try it.” As the power dynamics in the song shift and twist, Gardiner reigns over the room with soft-spoken authority.

“He has a very clear idea of what is going to happen in each rehearsal,” says Erin Weaver, who plays the Baker’s Wife, in an interview. “He’s got a very sure hand, which is comforting. But he still greets you with a hug, and it still feels like a really safe space, and it doesn’t feel like our choices and our ideas are excluded from that sure hand.”

The assertiveness is particularly unsurprising on this production: Gardiner remembers falling in love with theater when he was 6 years old and watching the PBS version of “Into the Woods” that was captured on Broadway in 1989. He subsequently wore out three versions of the “Into the Woods” cassette tape, he recalls, and had a penchant for draping a sheet over his shoulders and dancing around the living room pretending he was Bernadette Peters singing “Last Midnight.”

Although Gardiner worked as an assistant on the production of “Into the Woods” that inaugurated Signature’s Max Theatre in 2007 and helmed a student staging at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in early 2020, this version of “Into the Woods” — which officially opened Nov. 9 and runs through Jan. 29 — marks his first crack at directing a professional production of the show.

“I mean, it’s everything for me,” says Gardiner, who took over as Signature’s artistic director last year after more than a decade with the theater. “I do get this nostalgia when this music plays. There’s a picture of me in my office as a little kid, and every once in a while — not all the time — I just see that picture and go, ‘This kid would not believe that he’s getting to do this right now.’ ”

Gardiner didn’t anticipate getting another journey with “Into the Woods” so soon, figuring a 2019 revival at Ford’s Theatre would hold over D.C. audiences for years to come. But when the inimitable Sondheim died a year ago at age 91, Gardiner says, “the entire season that we were planning fell away.” As the regional theater that has produced more Sondheim musicals than any other, Signature reimagined its 2022-23 programming as a “Season of Sondheim,” with “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd” joining the already planned “Pacific Overtures” on the docket.

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Cognizant of both past “Into the Woods” productions in the area and the star-studded revival now on Broadway, Gardiner and scenic designer Lee Savage set apart their retelling by placing it in a decaying Victorian nursery — playing up the darkly comic tale’s bedtime story aesthetic. The surrounding forest, meanwhile, creeps through the floorboards and bursts through the walls. Nodding to the show’s emphasis on community, Gardiner picked a cast almost entirely composed of local actors and veterans from his past productions, including Jake Loewenthal as the Baker, Katie Mariko Murray as Cinderella, Alex De Bard as Little Red Riding Hood and Nova Y. Payton as the Witch.

“I can see him imagining us as the characters that he’s imagined for 20, 30 years,” says David Merino, who plays Jack. “His obsession with the piece is palpable, and it makes us want to really reach for his goals and reach for his dream production.”

Gardiner also embraced the logistical challenges of staging a musical that calls for a sprawling 21-person cast and 15-piece orchestra — all within the confines of an intimate, 275-seat theater. It’s a skill he has honed over the years while tackling such imposing undertakings as “West Side Story,” “Billy Elliot” and “A Chorus Line” and showcased last holiday season when he marked his first season in charge of Signature by directing a raucous revival of “Rent.” While stage manager Kerry Epstein says Gardiner has a knack for making such thorny endeavors look easy, it’s all part of the spell he casts over his audiences.

“He can see where all the pieces are going to happen,” says Epstein, a Signature veteran who has worked with Gardiner on some two dozen productions. “It seems like so little effort went in to make it happen, when that is absolutely not true — it has been so painstakingly thought of and crafted.”

As well as Gardiner knows “Into the Woods,” the musical — largely about parents, their children and the traits we inherit — took on new meaning after he lost his father, Amos, in April. When Gardiner listened to the cast album as a child, he remembers regularly skipping the bittersweet ballad “No More,” sung by the Baker and an apparition of his father. “Now, it’s more grounded in something truthful,” he says. “And when they sing ‘No More,’ I am a wreck.”

It’s fitting for a show that conveys how the messiness of everyday life can complicate the happiest of endings, all while dwelling on the enduring timelessness of our childhood fantasies.

“As I get older, [‘Into the Woods’] becomes more and more profound and moving and deep,” Gardiner says. “Every time, you’re finding new things and hearing lyrics in new ways. I think that is what’s special about the show: It’s truly a show that’s not appropriate for all ages but rather speaks to all ages in different ways.”

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771.

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