Into The Woods is back in town again, the musical’s long-awaited film adaptation’s upcoming Christmas Day opening certain to inspire more ITW revivals than have been seen locally in years and years … and leave L.A. theatergoers scratching their heads wondering which of the bunch to see.
For this reviewer, at least, the answer is simple. Head on over to Beverly Hills’ ritzy Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts to catch the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Summer Of 2014 smash revival, now spending the holiday season indoors at the Wallis after four SRO months under the Ashland, Oregon skies.
The story and songs are exactly the same as those that first captivated Broadway audiences a quarter century ago when Into The Woods scored three 1987 Tony Awards, including Stephen Sondheim’s for Best Original Score and James Lapine’s for Best Book.
Act One still magically combines several of the Brothers Grimm’s best-loved Fairy Tales, followed by a second act that explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after.”
Lapine’s ingenious book takes well-known characters Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, adds in an original pair of its own (a childless Baker and Baker’s Wife) along with a Witch, and then has them meet and interact while on a variety of missions that have sent them journeying Into The Woods.
Cinderella attends her ball (though here it is a festival lasting several days), Jack goes off to sell his beloved cow Milky White, Red Riding Hood leaves to visit Grandma’s house, and Mr. and Mrs. Baker set off in search of four magic ingredients which the Witch says will enable them to conceive a child.
By the end of the first act, all the characters have not only become acquainted, their fairy tale happiness has been assured—until the narrator’s Act One 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 a “director’s concept” production better than Into The Woods, and Oregon Shakes couldn’t have made a more inspired choice to helm the project than Amanda Dehnert, whose re-imagined The Fantasticks at South Coast Repertory last year offered audiences (in this reviewer’s words) “the very best The Fantasticks they will ever see.”
Dehnert’s take on Sondheim and Lapine arrives just four months after Fiasco Theatre Company’s supremely innovative staging at The Old Globe, a production I called “the most thrillingly imaginative” of the fourteen Into The Woods I’d then seen, and if Number Fifteen isn’t the from-the-ground-up reinvention that Fiasco’s was, it is extraordinarily inventive, and features at least one production element its recent predecessor did not—a Broadway-scale, Broadway-caliber sixteen-piece orchestra to do full justice to Sondheim’s gorgeous score.
One’s first impression upon entering the Bram Goldsmith Theatre—an orchestra seated onstage on scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s two-tiered (and at least initially bare) black set and actors congregating in street dress in the vicinity of music stands propped up downstage—might lead audience members to assume that they are about to witness Into The Woods In Concert, and though the orchestra does indeed remain in full view (and set modifications are relatively minor), this turns out to be about the furthest thing from the truth.
Everyday wear is soon replaced by Linda Roethke’s wildly ingenious fairytale garb (check out production stills and you’ll see why Roethke’s costumes are the production’s foremost design element), and actors are soon cavorting hither and thither, everywhere from from through the aisles to dangling high atop the stage. (Jack does after all climb a beanstalk, if you recall.)
Princes ride tricycle steeds, “magic” streamers get sent out across the fourth wall, and several audience members join the cast onstage as assorted fowl and a not-so milky-white bovine.
Several of the production’s fifteen cast members play multiple roles (though far fewer than was necessitated by Fiasco’s cast of twelve), notably the venerable Catherine E. Coulson as Cinderella’s stepmother, Red Ridinghood’s Granny, a video-projected Giant, and most particularly as the first Milky White to make me believe that Jack’s beloved pet was indeed a “she” well past her prime.
Coulson’s is delightful work from a 21-season OSF vet, and the same can be said for her fellow Oregon Shakes long-timers Robin Goodrin Nordli (20 seasons) as a divinely ditzy Jack’s Mother and Robert Vince Frank (27 seasons) as Cinderella’s much put-upon Father.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival cast’s extensive musical theater credits—and voices to match—are another major plus of this out-of-town import, including those of Dueling Princes Jeremy Peter Johnson (as Cinderella’s) and John Tufts (as Rapunzel’s), neither of whom could be more hunkily appealing … or more outrageously funny when posing for invisible paparazzi.
Johnson doubles as the voice of a Hells Angels-bearded Howie Seago’s Wolf, and though both are excellent, this is the one-and-only of Dehnert’s director’s concepts that didn’t work for me. (What’s up with that ASL signing and what happened to Wolf’’s lean-and-hungry sex appeal?)
Every other one of Dehnert’s directorial touches prove magical, however, as performer after performer put their own distinctive stamps on characters this reviewer at least has seen over a dozen times before.
I absolutely loved Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s deliciously dorky take on a not-so Little Red Ridinghood and dance captain Royer Bockus’s cute/wacky Rapunzel, along with Katie Bradley and Christiana Clark as Cinderella’s vain stepsisters, each more hilariously self-absorbed than the other, and a terrific Mauro Hantman’s ever-ready Steward.
Beanstalk boys don’t get any more irresistible than Miles Fletcher’s ginger-headed rapscallion of a Jack, nor Cinderellas any more exquisite than Jennie Greenberry’s, with John Vickery mixing gravitas and a wink as Into The Wood’s Narrator and the Baker’s Mysterious Man.
Finally, the production’s three main role could not be in more accomplished hands than those of Rachael Warren as a deeply felt Baker’s Wife, local cast addition Jeff Skowron, even more brilliant as The Baker than he was in his Ovation-nominated turn for 3-D Theatricals earlier this year, and above all Miriam A. Laube, as spectacular a Witch (both old-and-ugly and young-and-beautiful) as I’ve ever seen … and I mean ever. (That Laube’s credits are mostly in straight plays make her vocal brilliance even more noteworthy and raises the question, where can I get my hands on a Miriam Laube CD?)
Did I mention the funky choreography that makes “Ever After” the most fabulous “Ever After” ever?
In addition to eliciting one superb acting turn after another from her cast, Dehnert doubles splendidly as musical director, Martin Majkut conducts the onstage orchestra to perfection, and pianist Matt Goodrich deserves bonus points for being an always in-the-moment onstage audience stand-in (that is, when he’s not tickling the ivories).
Jane Cox’s vivid lighting, Joshua Horvath’s pitch perfect sound design, and Omar Ramos’ dramatic projections all deserve major kudos as well, and Penn & Teller fans will enjoy Jim Steinmeyer’s contributions as magic consultant.
Matt Goodrich is associate musical director. Heath Belden is stage manager and Roxana Khan is assistant stage manager.
Original enough to please and delight even the most avid Into The Woods aficionado (the “ad libs” to Lapine’s book are a particular treat) yet faithful enough to its source material to prove a perfect introduction to ITW virgins, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Production of Into The Woods is the season’s most welcome holiday visitor.
Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.
December 4, 2014
Photos: Kevin Parry