If you love Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods even half as much as I do, you must see Lucid By Proxy’s remarkable new revival, brilliantly directed by Calvin Remsberg in the most unique Into The Woods setting ever.

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.

James 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.”).

No other Sondheim musical seems to lend itself to “director’s concept” productions better than Into The Woods. A few years ago, Jon Lawrence Rivera and Oanh Nguyen directed a pair of acclaimed intimate productions about as different from each other as night is to day, and Remsberg’s re-envisioning of Into The Woods’ pre-and-post “Happily Ever After” world may well the be the most strikingly original of them all.

First and foremost is its venue. Remsberg and company have had the inspiration (and the chutzpah) to transform an outskirts-of-downtown warehouse into an immense urban jungle of a Woods—and to do so under Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan, making this Into The Woods one of the biggest “intimate” productions ever.

Scenic designer Jeanine A. Nicholas places a big square stage smack dab in the center of the warehouse, with yards and yards of twisting roots, tree trunks, and branches leading from ground level to a pre-existing upper floor, autumn leaves strewn across the stage, the audience seated on two sides. Kerri Norris costumes the cast in contemporary gear, Little Red Ridinghood sporting a red hoodie, Jack’s mother in a knee-length terrycloth housecoat, Cinderella’s stepmother in Beverly Hills chic, her stepsisters in Paris Hilton mini-dresses, and the wolf in black leather and denim.

Director Remsberg respects the original fairy tale characters’ distinctive qualities all the while making them very much of today’s urban world. Jack is straight out of East L.A., Red Ridinghood could be from any suburban middle school, and hoity-toity stepmom and blonde bimbo stepsisters fresh from a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive. As particular as Remsberg’s concept is, those seeing Into The Woods for the very first time need not feel cheated. They will be getting an authentic version of Sondheim and Lapine’s original concept while Into The Woods lovers will appreciate the freshness of Remsberg’s vision.

As for the performances, many of them are among the best I’ve seen since my first exposure to Into The Woods at the Ahmanson Theatre back in 1989.

First and foremost, there is the stupendous Jessica Pennington as The Witch, a role created on Broadway by Bernadette Peters and rarely equaled since then. Pennington has the vocal chops, powerful stage presence, and stellar comedic (and dramatic) gifts to nail every Witch moment (pre and post transformation) and make the part entirely her own.

I’ve never seen a better Cinderella than the gorgeous Jennifer Malenke, who not only sings like an angel but proves herself a delightful comedienne, combining vocal and comedic gifts in a best-ever rendition of “On The Steps Of The Palace.” As the Baker, David Pevsner shows off the dramatic chops that made his performances in F*cking Men and Corpus Christi so memorable, adding to them first-rate vocals and genuine chemistry with Valerie Rachelle, absolute perfection as the warm, wise, and gutsy Baker’s Wife.

Daytime TV legend Anthony Geary, besides giving General Hospital fans a chance to see “Luke” up close and personal, does commendable work in the dual role of Narrator/Mysterious man, having particular fun with the latter. I can’t recall a vocally stronger (or more hilarious) Rapunzel than Josie Yount, and rising star Zachary Ford matches her every step of the way as her Prince. Dark pony-tailed Michael Uribes is a very different Jack than we’ve seen before, but no less touching than the blond blue-eyed lad usually cast in the role. Pamela Hamill captures all of Jack’s Mother’s ditziness and chutzpah. Shannon Nelson is a spunky treat as Little Red Ridinghood. David Nett doubles with great macho swagger as a leather-jacketed Wolf and an appropriately full-of-himself Cinderella’s Prince.

It’s great fun to see Nancy Gassner-Clayton’s Stepmother, Sarah Orr’s Lucinda, and Jessie Withers’ Florinda reconceived as characters out of The Osbournes or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. AnnaLisa Erickson lends her powerful stage presence and pipes to Cinderella’s Mother and Ridinghood’s Granny. As for the Giant, Remsberg’s highly original concept lets us actually see (and not just hear) the female behemoth (Erickson again, at her ballsiest) and casts a scene-stealing Johnny Cannizzaro as Milky White. Yes, “Milky White is a she” is played by a he, and Cannizzaro deserves a blue ribbon for creating one of the most memorable, lovable animal creatures ever to be featured in a musical.

The supporting cast is completed in fine fashion by Jayson Kraid as Cinderella’s father, James Paul Xavier as Steward, Carissa Ro Gatti as Snow White, and Sara J. Stuckey as Sleeping Beauty.

Rachelle has choreographed jaunty dance steps to accompany ensemble numbers, particularly the Act One and Act Two openings. Musical director Richard Berent performs Jonathan Tunich’s original arrangements all by himself in a combination of layered, computer-programmed tracks and live piano. It takes a few minutes for Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design to kick in, but amazingly it manages to amplify and mix voices and instrumentals in a way that would seem un-doable in a warehouse. (Real life passing trains and trucks add to the realistic urban feel, seeming so right that they detract nothing from the production.) Jim Harney’s lighting design is colorful, dramatic, and varied. Nett is technical director, Patty Ramsey and Sasha Harris are stage managers.

Lucid By Proxy’s Into The Woods has arrived on the L.A. theater scene with little advance fanfare, so much so that it may have passed under the radar of even avid theatergoers. Hopefully, rave reviews and positive word of mouth will spread news of its presence to Southland Sondheim lovers. No matter how many times you’ve seen Into The Woods, whether you are a first-timer or a twelve-time vet like I am, you will not want to miss this one.

Big Art Labs, 651 Clover Street, Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
November 4, 2010
Photos: Andrew R. Deutsch and Tris Beezley

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