Anyone interested in getting a preview of tomorrow’s musical theater stars today could do no better than to check out the USC School Of Theatre’s current production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods, performed CLO-scale and directed by Emmy, Tony, Drama Desk, Ovation and LADCC Award-winning John Rubinstein (Broadway’s original Pippin).  Like last year’s sensational Brigadoon, also directed by Rubinstein, Into The Woods is a terrifically performed treat, and one that does justice to its brilliant source material.


Since its Broadway premiere 23 years ago, 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.

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.”).

Rubinstein’s take on Into The Woods begins with our Narrator (Mark Jacobson) giving last minute instructions to the eight or so black-clad, headset-sporting stage crew members who will be maneuvering scenic designer Kaitlyn Lee’s fanciful modular set pieces into a few dozen assorted configurations throughout the show’s nearly three-hour running time. Jacobson then launches into the show’s entirely fitting opening line, “Once upon a time in a far off Kingdom lived a young maiden, a sad young lad and a childless baker.”  The young actor conveys just the right blend of the dignified, the stuffy, and the self-important that the role requires, and doubles to great comic effect as a character known as Mysterious Man, who spouts mystifying lines like “When first I appear, I seem delirious, but when explained, I’m nothing serious.”

As might be expected, actors playing characters close to their own ages are standouts. Alex Arthur is simply marvelous as Cinderella, and sings the exceedingly difficult “On The Steps Of The Palace” to perfection.  The petite duo of Kenton Chen and Sydney Blair, who could both pass for years younger, couldn’t be better as Jack and Little Red Ridinghood.  Chen captures all of Jack’s innocence and boyish charm, and Blair is everything spunky, tough girl Red should be. Each shines in his or her signature number, Blair with Red’s sadder-but-wiser “I Know Things Now” and Chen with the magical “Giants In the Sky.”

Despite being a decade or so younger than their characters, Ben Trustman and Emily Goglia invest the Baker and the Baker’s Wife with years of wisdom gained from life experience.  Their “It Takes Two” is a married couple’s wondrous discovery that they do better together than apart. Goglia’s “Moments In The Woods” is a wry delight and Trustman’s duet of “No More” with Jacobson may leave audience members’ eyes more than a bit moist.

Ian Littleworth nails the dual role of the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, making the former suitably sexy/nasty and the latter appropriately dashing/cocky. Sean Kranz matches him for princely narcissism as Rapunzel’s Prince, the goofier of the two royal heirs. Their duet of “Agony” and its reprise are beautifully sung and funny as can be.

The exceptionally challenging role of the Witch has stymied many an actress since being originated on Broadway by the phenomenal Bernadette Peters.  Marina Lynn Macer gives it her all, and has good moments even despite the role’s hard-to-nail complexities, depth, and vocal challenges.

Supporting roles are pretty much all winners.  Penelope Yates has loads of fun with Cinderella’s egocentric stepmother, and Megan McDermott and Lauren Leigh Barker (as stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda) are both laugh-getters. Emily Spencer Munson is a less ditzy Jack’s Mother than usual, but the performance works, Munson conveying Mom’s frustration with and her love for her slightly dimwitted son. Adrienne Storrs displays a lovely singing voice as Cinderella’s mother and comedic talent as Red Ridinghood’s Granny.  Haley Fletcher (Rapunzel) is a terrific comedienne and singer.  Adorable Christopher Higgins’ hilarious, fresh take on the Steward is one to remember. Michael Ishkanian is funny as Cinderella’s lush of a father.  Olivia Lane and Lexie Lowell pop up to humorous effect in their eleventh hour appearances as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

Director Rubinstein deserves highest marks for his physical staging as well as for the way he has worked with his cast as actors creating characters and not simply as musical theater performers singing Sondheim. He is greatly aided in his staging by Lee’s ingenious set, made up of a dozen or more modular units which suggest trees, houses, and towers rather than depicting them literally, and which the aforementioned stage crew are continually moving into complex new patterns.  (This works particularly well in making the audience share the characters’ feelings of being lost in a forest maze.)

Musical Director Parmer Fuller conducts the large pit orchestra, which gives this Into The Woods a rich, professional sound.

Michelle Goulart’s costumes have just the right fairy tale feel, with special snaps for the Wolf’s imaginative garb and Red Ridinghood’s pink petticoats and (of course) red riding hood. Liza Burns’ lighting conveys both the show’s magic and charm and its darker moments as well.  Philip G. Allen and Sean Foote’s sound design provides a perfect mix between miked voices and the Broadway-ready orchestra, plus some great booming, startling sound effects as well. Lili Fuller has choreographed a couple of charming dance numbers.  Molly McGraw serves as production stage manager.

All in all, the USC School Of Theatre’s production of Into The Woods comes very close to equaling the best of our professional CLO stagings. Add a few years (or decades) to the cast members’ ages and you couldn’t tell the difference between college and pro. It’s that splendid a production.

Bing Theatre, University Of Southern California, 3500 Watt Way, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
April 3, 2010

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