- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold. These ingredients comprise the spell at the center of Into the Woods, the classic musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine that twists and combines popular fairy tales into a brutal exploration of the consequences of wish fulfillment. The Fiasco Theater production, a stripped-down take that premiered in San Diego in 2014 before an acclaimed Off-Broadway run, is now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. This is not Into the Woods like you have ever seen it before, but instead a refreshing, creative take that manages to unlock new layers of meaning.
Into the Woods as written is a rather complicated musical with a lot going on, but this rendition is simplified and informal, allowing the masterful writing and music to speak for itself. When you enter the theater, there is no curtain masking the interesting set, which features a piano, a hodgepodge of multipurpose household objects, and a backdrop of giant piano strings that serve as the titular woods. The show is entirely performed by an ensemble of ten actor/musicians plus one pianist. While Into the Woods traditionally has a few actors play multiple roles, this production doubles and triples down on that concept, with nearly everyone not only playing more than one character, but also playing instruments. There is no narrator, and instead that task is shared by everyone onstage, including the pianist (Evan Rees). Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the entire spectacle is an impressive achievement of innovative stagecraft and ensemble acting, remaining high energy throughout.
The story follows the Baker (Evan Harrington) and his wife (Eleasha Gamble), who learn the reason they have been unable to produce a child is a curse placed on the Baker’s family by a witch (Stephanie Umoh). She gives them the opportunity to have the curse reversed if they can collect four key ingredients to help her with a spell. While on their quest they meet Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer), Jack (Patrick Mulryan), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lisa Helmi Johnson, who doubles as Rapunzel), all of whom are in the midst of their well-known adventures. The remainder of the cast handles as many as three roles each—Anthony Chatmon II takes on Cinderella’s prince, the wolf, and Lucinda, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, while Darick Pead is the cow, Milky White, Rapunzel’s prince, and Florinda, the other stepsister. Bonne Kramer is both Cinderella’s stepmother and Jack’s mother, and Fred Rose is the mysterious man. The actors rarely leave the stage and play instruments ranging from the bassoon to the trumpet to the guitar. There is truly not a weak link amongst the bunch, which is crucial in such a group effort, although Veldheer, Chatmon, and Pead were the standouts.
At first, the ultra-relaxed feel of this staging is almost a bit off-putting. The show begins with the cast meandering onto the stage and waving to the audience with no fourth wall in sight. The costumes are very simple, consisting mainly of plain, white garments with accessories such as Cinderella’s tiara and sparkly skirt being added only as needed. It definitely takes a few minutes to adjust to just how different this take on the show is. Musically, it is incredibly stripped down as well, with no large orchestra to fill out the famous orchestrations, giving the songs a different sound than you have likely heard before. Ultimately, I ended up quite liking it, and the dainty, acoustic feel particularly suited the quieter numbers like “Giants in the Sky” and the emotional “No One is Alone.” Telling such a complicated story in such a simple way is no easy feat, and the magic they are able to create with only bare bones to work with is truly impressive. Beautiful lighting (Christopher Akerlind) creates some stunning imagery, and I particularly loved the innovative use of shadows to make moments with the wolf and Little Red’s grandmother and later with the giantess very memorable and visually interesting.
I am glad this was not my first experience with Into the Woods because I’m not sure this is the version best suitable for getting initially acquainted. In my opinion, however, the true test of any revival or reimagining is if it manages to find a new layer of meaning, or unearth something surprising even to those intimately acquainted with the source material. I definitely found myself paying more attention to different lines and seeing moments and even characters in a new light as a result of this staging. As with any version of the show, an almost lighthearted act one makes way for a much darker, serious act two, utilizing the act break for a tonal shift the likes of which no other musical really attempts. For any fan of Sondheim or fan of inventive musical theater, this Fiasco Theater production is a must-see, and proves that anything can indeed happen in the woods—even woods you know well.
Into the Woods runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through May 14th. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. The TodayTix app also holds a daily digital lottery for $19.67 tickets to the show. After Los Angeles the production moves on to Dallas, Texas. For more information about the limited tour, click here. Photo: Joan Marcus