Since its Broadway premiere 21 years ago, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods has become one of the most performed musicals in the U.S.—in regional CLOs, on college and high school campuses, and in intimate theaters.  Its first act, which magically combines some of the best loved of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and its second, which explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after,” make for a show which retains its freshness and originality two decades after it first captivated Broadway audiences.

Lyric Theatre’s current revival marks the 10th Into The Woods I’ve seen since the First National Tour graced the Ahmanson stage in 1989, and though it is more straight-forward an interpretation than the pair of recent (and brilliant) “director’s concept” productions, it is nonetheless a solid and for the most part beautifully performed show, and one that is likely to please both seasoned Into The Woods vets like myself and newbies like my StageSceneLA guest, who joins me in giving this Into The Woods thumbs up. 

Lapine’s book ingeniously takes well-known characters from Cinderella, Jack And The Beanstock, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, adds an original pair of his own (the childless Baker and his wife) and a Witch, and has them meet and interact while on a variety of missions which have sent them Into The Woods. Cinderella attends her ball (though here it is a festival lasting several days), Jack goes off to sell Milky White, his beloved cow, Red Riding Hood leaves to visit Grandma’s house, and the Baker and his wife take off in search of four magic ingredients which the Witch says will allow them to conceive a child.  By the end of the first act, all the characters have become acquainted and their fairy tale happiness has been assured—until the narrator’s Act 1 curtain line (“To Be Continued”) alerts us that there is more, much more, to come.

Sondheim’s songs go from his signature “where did that note come from” ditties (“On The Steps Of The Palace”) to instantly hummable ballads (“Children Will Listen”) to the jaunty title song, and his lyrics are both clever (“If it were not for the thicket. A thicket’s no trick. Is it thick? It’s the thickest. The quickest is pick it apart with a stick.”) and profound (“Careful the things you do. Children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen.”).

Narrating the tale is a wry (and excellent) Sean Spann, who doubles amusingly as Mysterious Man. Ryan Braun and Kat Kramer are a younger Baker and Baker’s Wife than the roles are usually cast, but both are fine singers and have great chemistry together.  The tall, lanky Braun (who also directs with confidence) has a sweetly innocent quality which contrasts well with Kramer’s tartness and intelligence.  

As the witch (originated definitely by Bernadette Peters), Dorrie Braun has the toughest job, but she has a number of strong moments, particularly a dramatic and chilling “The Last Midnight.” Erin Zaruba (Cinderella) proves herself as adept a soprano as she was a belter in the recent shAme, and her rendition of the very difficult “On The Steps Of The Palace” combines vocal expertise with some darned good acting.

A perfectly cast Brent Schindele does outstanding work as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s prince, the former just oozing lupine charm and danger as he pulls a reluctant Red Riding Hood into a seductive dance, the latter deliciously full of himself and his own charm. Robert Tafoya (Rapunzel’s Prince) has an ingratiating goofiness that makes for a great contrast with Shindele’s blond perfection, and together they perform a very funny (and beautifully harmonized) “Agony.” As Red Riding Hood, Amanda Noret is terrifically spunky, lets out a mean wail when divested of her cape, and exhibits street girl toughness when, knife in hand and wolf cape around her shoulder, she proudly announces, “I skinned it!” 

Sam Ayoub plays Jack with the role’s requisite cuteness, a dash of adolescent horniness (and wonder) when recalling the giant’s giant breasts in a very well sung “Giants In The Sky,” and a truly touching transition into adulthood.  Kathi Copeland is funny indeed as Jack’s long-suffering mother getting laughs just by walking across the stage and bringing freshness to her every line-reading.

Even actors with smaller roles do first rate work here—Mirna Carbajal (a hoot as Lucinda, the rounder of the two stepsisters), Thomas Dolby (an amusingly snooty Steward), Joyanna Crouse (stepsister Florinda), Elizabeth Harmetz (Stepmother, the lovely voice of Cinderella’s Mother, and a feisty Granny), Rachel Howe (a wonderfully distraught Rapunzel), and Daniel O’Donnell (Cinderella’s father) 

Musical director Gary Mattison at the piano does impeccable work, backed by a flautist and (occasionally) Schindele on synthesizer.  Mattison also has the cast harmonizing to perfection. Though not a dance show per se, Kramer and Zaruba have created some lively choreography for the title song and the Act 1 closer “Ever After.”

Sound designer Jesse Laks gets high marks for some very original and effective touches, like the “zappp” heard whenever the witch uses her magic stick, Milky White’s “gulp” upon swallowing each of the Witch’s ingredients, the chirping of the invisible birds talking with Cinderella, and the huge “splat” when the giant falls to the ground. Jules Vallier’s scenic design makes good use of the Lyric’s reconfigured seating plan (to allow for the widest stage possible), and proves that Into The Woods can work as well with a relatively bare bones set as it does with a Broadway-budgeted forest. The same can be said about the uncredited costumes, especially the Mysterious Man’s colorfully ragged cape. Ric Zimmerman’s lighting enhances the production’s fairy tale quality with magical flashes. 

Few shows can stand up to repeated viewing the way Into The Woods does.  Even for someone who’s been “into the woods and home before dark” as often as I have, the journey is once again well worth taking.

Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley 
November 20, 2008
                                                                         Photos: Monique Morales

Comments are closed.