Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning Into The Woods receives its first major L.A.-area production in nearly a decade as 3-D Theatricals presents a beautifully acted, assuredly directed, and gorgeously designed revival of the contemporary classic, though all concerned must surely be wishing they’d had the benefit of a couple more previews before Saturday’s technical-glitch-marred Opening Night.
From great big regional stages like 3-D’s at Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium to college and community theater productions to intimate black-box stagings, Into The Woods has become one of the most performed musicals in the U.S. since its 1987 Broadway premiere. 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 nearly three 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), throws in 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.”).
3-D Theatricals’ T.J. Dawson directs and choreographs Into The Woods with the assurance and ease of someone who clearly knows Sondheim and Lapine’s fairytale forest like the back of his hand, and with literally hundreds of auditioning professionals to pick and choose from, it’s hard to imagine a finer cast than the one now onstage, beginning with last year’s Scenie-winning Musical Theater Star Of The Year Bets Malone, so deliciously witchy as Act One’s old crone that her transformation to Act Two glamour girl is all the more stunning, as are Malone’s renditions of “Stay With Me” and the show-stopping “Last Midnight.”
Lending Malone all-around superb support is a cast of leading and featured performers who make their characters ingeniously, indelibly their own.
The role of the Baker marks yet another 3-D triumph for Jeff Skowron, winner of last year’s Best Lead Actor Ovation Award for his performance as Leo Frank in Parade. Skowron’s latest allows him to combine the irresistible charm he displayed in February’s The Producers with the emotional depth he gave Leo making him one of the Best Bakers Ever.
I’ve never seen a more marvelous Baker’s Wife than Viva Carr, formerly Virginia Weber, formerly Viva Weber, so instantly likeable and so continually revelatory in the role that you may find yourself forgetting even the best Bakers Wives you may have seen before, and she’s got beauty and pipes to match Broadway’s finest.
Jeanette Dawson reveals both comedic and legit soprano gifts as Cinderella, with Tim Martin Gleason and Cameron Sczempka a perfectly (mis)matched pair of impossibly handsome Princes, the former as vain and cocky and the latter is faint of heart (or at least dwarf-intimated), the two of them duetting gloriously in “Agony” and its reprise.
Julie Morgentaler’s irrepressibly spunky Little Red Riding Hood too is a total delight, including some double-entendre-iffic interplay with Gleason’s sexy wolf.
Jordan Lamoureux (Jack) once again reveals himself to be one of Southern California’s emerging young musical theater stars, and like Tracy Rowe Mutz as the dim lad’s supremely, sensationally ditzy Mom, breathes fresh new life into a character we’ve seen time and again. Not only do Lamoureux and Mutz make us feel we’re seeing Jack and Jack’s Mother for the first time, the former’s reaction to news of the latter provides the evening’s most emotionally potent moment, and affirms the authenticity of the relationship the two have forged throughout the show.
David Allen Jones gives the dual roles of Narrator and Mysterious Man just the right mix of wisdom and wry humor. Christanna Rowader takes Princess Rapunzel (often a throw-away role) and gives P-Rap a mad scene so thrillingly played, the abundantly tressed princess achieves an almost Ophelia-like power. The divine Leslie Stevens (Cinderella’s Stepmother) and Step Mama’s gorgeous daughters Florinda (Melina Kalomas in an amusing change-of-pace from Light In The Piazza’s Franca) and Lucinda (Melanie Mockobey, terrific too) provide glamorous comic relief. Lisa Dyson lends her lovely soprano to Cinderella’s Mom and a just-right feistiness to Granny.
Cameo roles are ably/amusingly played by Cliff Senior as Cinderella’s father, Mueen Jahan as the Steward, Renna Nightingale as Sleeping Beauty and Allison Sheppard as Snow White, while the distinctive voice of Sally Struthers lends a quirky gravitas to the unseen Giant.
Musical director extraordinaire Julie Lamoureux does dynamic double duty, MDing the whole shebang and conducting 3-D Theatricals’ Broadway-size/caliber orchestra provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective.
Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz has created a sumptuous, spooky, ever-morphing forest into which our cast of classic fairytale characters can go Into-The-Woodsing, however it’s a design whose complex scene-change requirements necessitate by their nature and number at the very least a few more days of teching than was the case before Saturday’s opening.
The unfortunate result was one between-scene glitch after another, stage hands making frequent, unscheduled visits into and out of the woods, and set pieces which did not arrive on schedule. Add to that sound mixing/amplification issues which may have rendered many of Sondheim’s intricate lyrics incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the musical and you have a production that was unfortunately not yet ready for its Opening Night.
Fortunately, these are the kind of tech mishaps that can be corrected, and my hope (and best guess) is that this upcoming weekend’s performances will run considerably smoother than Saturday’s.
What does merit unreserved praise are Into The Woods’ bevy of colorful, whimsical fairytale costumes provided by California Music Theatre and coordinated by Yolanda Rowell, Cliff & Kat Senior’s intricately-styled wigs, Denice Patton’s makeup (with special snaps for pre-and-post-transformation Witch), and the production’s multitude of props coordinated by Gretchen Morales and Melanie Cavaness. Equally fine is Jean-Yves Tessier’s vivid lighting design (despite a few missed cues on Opening Night). Julie Ferrin’s sound design will surely benefit from the fine-tuning more performances will allow.
Additional design and behind-the-scenes credit goes to Andrew Nagy (projection design), Jene Roach (technical director), Lisa Palmire (production stage manager), and Terry Hanrahan (assistant stage manager).
Rufus Bonds, Jr. is assistant director and dance captain Stevens is co-choreographer.
When you compare the amount of technical prep time that precedes a Broadway or National Tour Opening Night with the tiny fraction afforded to professional Los Angeles productions, it’s a showbiz miracle that virtually every big-stage L.A.-area musical opening goes off without a hitch.
Into The Woods may not have opened glitch-free, but its many positives (performances at top of the list) portend another winner for 3-D Theatricals. Just be sure to stay for Act Two. The show is only just starting at Happily Ever After.
Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
May 3, 2014
Photo: Isaac James Creative