INTO THE WOODS

Revivals don’t come any more thrillingly imaginative than Fiasco Theater’s brilliantly re-imagined Into The Woods, now paying a visit to the Ahmanson Theatre in a production no musical theater lover will want to miss.

With only a few relatively minor cuts to the original, Fiasco gives audiences the whole magical shebang, albeit stripped down to a cast of a mere ten (compared to Broadway’s original nineteen), and with a full orchestra having been replaced by a single onstage pianist, most of the cast play not only play two or three different roles, they also join in when needed on assorted musical instruments.

For the few who may never have caught the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine classic, I’ll leave it to others to detail how its first act magically combines several of the Brothers Grimm’s best-loved Fairy Tales, after which Act Two then explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after.”

It’s clear from even before the show starts that this isn’t going to be just any old Into The Woods, for not only do all ten cast members (and pianist/musical director Evan Rees) greet the audience with welcoming waves, scenic designer Derek McLane has covered the upstage wall with giant intersecting piano/harp strings to take the place of trees and scattered about various musical instruments, along with multiple tables, chairs, and trunks, and assorted paraphernalia whose many uses we will soon discover.

From the opening words “Once upon a time,” it becomes clear as well that the role normally played by a ubiquitous Narrator will be taken over by alternating cast members, and that there’ll be doubling and tripling up on roles, with some gender/species-blind casting thrown in for good measure.

Among directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld’s inspired touches are the cinched curtains (still on a rod) that transform a pair of princes into stepsisters, a pyramid-shaped ladder that serves as a castle, a dress mannequin that takes the place of the tree Cinderella’s mother inhabits (with a quartet of female cast members giving Mom her voice), the taxidermied wolf head that turns Prince from human to lupine, a feather duster that becomes a gold egg-laying hen and sheets of paper folded in half to become birds, the stick horses the Princes mount before leaving their “stallions” in the care of a couple of front-row spectators … and that’s not all.

Even those who have grown tired of the actors-as-musicians concept that made John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd so innovative will appreciate how Frank Galgano and music supervisor Matt Castle have re-orchestrated Sondheim the better to allow cast members to join in when needed on cello, guitar, banjo, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, drum, and percussion, a task to which cast members rise, and then some.

As for Into The Woods’ touring cast, not only do they reveal Broadway-caliber triple threats (as actors, singers, and musicians), they provide a textbook example of racial diversity at its most effective and invisible.

Evan Harrington’s big, burly, bearded Baker reveals an ocean-deep heart opposite Eleasha Gamble’s earthy, eloquent Baker’s Wife, and both display vocals to match.

Stephanie Umoh’s Witch goes from freaky to fabulous, selling “Last Midnight” like nobody’s business, and though Fred Rose’s Mysterious Man doesn’t get to double as Narrator, he makes the wry most of what is now a cameo role in addition to proving himself an expert musician.

The rest of the cast get to double and triple up, which allows the sextet two-to-three times the fun had by any of their predecessors whilst journeying Into The Woods.

Princes Anthony Chatmon II (Cinderella’s) and Darick Pead (Rapunzel’s) get arguably the production’s most exciting assignments, the former a sizzlingly seductive Wolf and the latter a scene-stealingly adorable Milky White (whose reaction to Jack’s confusion between Butcher and Baker doubles the laugh quotient of an already funny Jack-ism).

As for Jack, they don’t come any more winningly dimwitted than Patrick Mulryan’s, whose beefed-up role as the Steward makes a stronger impression than any I’ve seen before.

As for the ladies, Lisa Helmi Johanson’s sassy Red Ridinghood and her drolly comedic Rapunzel are both gems, Laurie Veldheer not only gets to be a luminous Cinderella but has great fun as a grizzled Granny, and Bonne Kramer turns Jack’s mother into one sharp cookie matched by her original take on Cinderella’s vain and vapid stepmother.

Lisa Shrivner’s lively choreography complements Brody’s and Steinfeld’s direction to perfection.

In addition to McLane’s set, Fiasco’s Into The Woods’ supremely original production design features “Let’s put on a show” costumes by Whitney Locher, dazzlingly varied lighting effects by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and Darron L. West and Charles Coes’ pitch-perfect sound design.

Brian J. L’Ecuyer is stage manager. Joshua Archer, Sean Peter Forte, Javier Ignacio, dance captain Mary Kate Moore, and Alanna Saunders are understudies. Pead is fight captain.

No matter how many times you’ve ventured Into The Woods, you won’t want to miss seeing it done the Fiasco Theater way. Revivals don’t get more uniquely fabulous than this.

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Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles. Through May 14. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 213 628-2772
www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

–Steven Stanley
April 5, 2017
Photos: Joan Marcus

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