Cal State Fullerton’s musical theater majors once again prove themselves some of American’s Most Promising triple-threats in CSUF’s splendid big-stage revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods.
In the now thirty years since Into The Woods got its Old Globe World Premiere in 1986, Sondheim and Lapine’s magical musical has captivated audiences with its clever juxtaposition of a first act that ingeniously combines some of the best-loved of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a post-intermission “To Be Continued” that explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after,” resulting in a show which retains its freshness and originality three decades after it first dazzled Broadway audiences.
Lapine’s book takes well-known characters from Cinderella, Jack And The Beanstalk, 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 One curtain line 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.”).
Powerful stuff this, and entertaining to book, particularly as directed by Eve Himmelheber, who rather than reinvent a classic, opts to respect Sondheim and Lapine’s time-tested brilliance while providing this Into The Woods with as inspired and moving an ending as I’ve ever seen. (Sometimes a chair is not just a chair.)
Most importantly, Himmelheber allows an all-around topnotch cast to put their individual stamps on Into The Woods’ iconic characters.
Carrot-topped Spencer Ty Pierson was clearly born to play Jack, a role he aces opposite Alli Schynert’s delightfully dithery Mother and Hannah Clair’s scrumptiously spunky Little Red Riding Hood. (As for just how scrumptious, ask Kyle Padzel’s dangerously sexy, seductive Wolf.)
Lily Bryson combines fire and a gorgeous soprano as Cinderella, Elizabeth Campbell is a bonkers delight as Rapunzel, and Marqell Edward Clayton and Joe Stein quite literally leap into the audience’s hearts as a pair of distinctly delicious Princes.
Aaron Ford makes for both a wry and witty Narrator and a marvelously mysterious Mysterious Man, Katie Lee transitions terrifically from Carrie-tormenting Sue to Cinderella-tormenting Stepmother, and Kristina Dizon and Erin Tierney provide stepsisterlicious support as Florinda and Lucinda.
As for the Witch, not only does Allison Jane Parker transition memorably from hag to head-turner, she sings the Witch’s “Children Will Listen” and “Last Midnight” with a stunning alto vibrato you’d not expect from someone still a CSUF junior.
Featured and cameo roles are entertainingly rendered by Brian Gonzalez (Cinderella’s Father), Matthew Ollson (Steward), Kelly Rosales (Mother, Snow White), and Kiana Hamzehi (Sleeping Beauty), with Jennifer Elise reading the unseen Giant’s reverb-enhanced lines.
Musical director Mitchell Hanlon not only elicits splendid vocals, he conducts the production’s professional-caliber pit orchestra as well.
CSUF’s Into The Woods looks as professional as it sounds, thanks to Mauri Anne Smith and Ashley Strain’s woodsy set, one that thankfully doesn’t attempt to overcomplicate things as some others have before. Ben Hawkins’ vibrant lighting is another winner, as are Chauna Goldberg’s makeup and hair designs. Sound designer Devon Swiger insures that we hear each and every Sondheim lyric (no easy task) and John Favreau’s projections add to the magic when needed.
Above all, Michelle Kincaid’s fairy tale costumes respect their wearers’ well-known looks while doing so in imaginative ways that make them seem fresh and new.
Amber Guttilla is assistant director. Lindsay Lowy is stage manager. Alex Johnson is technical director.
There aren’t many musicals capable of providing as many performers as fabulous an acting-singing showcase as Into The Woods. The students of Cal State Fullerton do Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine proud.
Little Theatre, California State University Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.
April 10, 2106
Photos: Jordan Kubat