Since Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, debuted on Broadway thirty years ago, it has been in continuous production in touring companies and in premiere venues around the world, as well as in colleges and universities, regional theatres and community theatres. It is an irresistible property, with roles for nineteen actors, if the Broadway casting is emulated. With its many productions, and the hit 2014 film version, it really doesn’t need reiterating that Into the Woods is a delightful mash-up of the most famous fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.
No Disney feel-good, happy-ending story, this invention places the beloved characters in a dangerous, existential world where characters can die brutally and where handsome princes are self-absorbed horn-dogs. There is cruelty and conflict; the characters driven to amoral action; and even the best of them are compromised. Yet through it all, there is the glimmer of light, the hope that there could a be a place of respite, no matter how brief, where people can breathe in the sunlight and lead common, uneventful lives where children are nourished and cared for. It is hyperbole to compare the play with Syria, but it does come to mind. Into the Woods is a seriously delightful show with shadowy overtones.
Fiasco Theater, a creation of graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA acting program, developed this production and it was subsequently picked up by New York’s Roundabout Theatre, where it became a hit. Ingenious in concept, the core company of eleven features Evan Harrington as the Baker, Eleasha Gamble as the Baker’s Wife, Stephanie Umoh as the Witch, and Fred Rose as the Mysterious Man, with the remaining players doubling or tripling. The protean actors are Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood/Rapunzel, Anthony Chatmon II as Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince, Bonne Kramer as Cinderella’s Stepmother/Jack’s Mother, Patrick Mulryan as Jack/Steward, Darick Pead as Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince, and Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella/Granny. Each and every one have gorgeous voices and play with unchained energy. They deliver ripe, often ribald, comedy, as well as touching pathos.
Shortly before the show begins, the cast ambles onstage and places instruments around the periphery of the set—an oboe, bassoon, guitar, banjo and more. A drum kit is up left. Aha! As the show unfolds, it is clear that the cast members are quadruple threats—actors-singers-dancers-musicians. An upright piano sits dead center on a moveable platform, where music director Evan Rees will play with extraordinary élan.
A relaxed, amiable bunch, the players chat with audience members in the front rows. One cast member spotted a friend in the audience and had an “oh, my God” moment. Eventually Anthony Chatmon II steps down and says hello, appreciates being in LA and goes on to make the de rigueur announcements about cell phones and exits. Then audience lights down, stage lights up and the show kicks into high gear with “Into the Woods.”
Ingenious scenic designer Derek McLane reinforces the notion of music keyed by that iconic, central piano, with a set that boasts a false proscenium made of piano keyboards and strikers. Cast iron piano plates and other innards rise up as walls defining the playing space left and right. A forest of ropes far upstage looks like a giant mass of piano strings, which, of course, amplifies the idea that we are about to go “into the woods.” Lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind smoothly integrates with set and action. Whitney Locher’s costumes allow for quick changes and suggest a homespun recent past. The sound design by Darron L. West and Charles Coes is big when necessary, and subtly amplifies voices without drawing attention. There are no big dance numbers, but the choreography by Lisa Shriver ideally suits the aims of the show.
This brilliant production, honed to perfection by directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, and enthusiastically delivered by a superb cast is the be-all and end-all for this property. I can’t see it getting any better than this. If you love the show or have never seen it, don’t miss this chance!
Into the Woods runs through May 14 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.