'Into the Woods': Theater Review
The meta-theatrical Oregon Shakespeare Festival production comes to Los Angeles just ahead of Disney's movie adaptation
After 27 years, Into the Woods, the postmodern fairy-tale mash-up by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is having its season in the sun with Disney's all-star movie adaptation due Christmas Day, a recent reunion of the original cast at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center, and now the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's uneven but ultimately winning production at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.
While the critical reaction has traditionally been mixed on Sondheim's mid-career 1987 mindbender combining Cinderella, Little Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, Into the Woods has endured. The show had a Broadway revival in 2002 and a Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park summer staging featuring Amy Adams in 2012, with another scaled-down revival due off-Broadway in January. Along the way it has become the most performed of the musicals for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.
Although it seems a bit tidy the way characters in a sprawling forest cross paths with such frequency, there's no point in getting caught up in coincidences when the stage is so obviously set for fantasy. Yet while the houselights are still on, castmembers in street clothes wander in from the wings where the band sits in two sections, stage right and left, with percussion on a raised catwalk between them. Fugue-like at first, the show starts to gel as various articles of costume appear and the lights begin to fade. When the kinetic chords of the prologue spring from conductor Martin Majkut's superlative orchestra, the play proper has begun and the audience can put aside wondering what all that senseless meandering has been about.
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Clocking in at 12 minutes, the prologue is full of the manic timing and intricately woven melodies Sondheim is known for as each member of the ensemble spells out his or her ambitions before heading into the woods. The Baker and the Baker's Wife aim to break a witch's spell so they might have a child. To do so, the Witch demands a white cow, a golden slipper, a braid of flaxen hair and a red cape. Jack has the cow, Cinderella the slipper, Rapunzel the hair and you know who has the cape.
As the Baker, Jeff Skowron is new to the production but not to the role, showing difficulty with neither vocal nor dramatic demands, though his relationship with his wife seems more of a business proposition than a marriage. Rachael Warren brings vibrancy to the latter role, but has an uneven voice that barely manages to meet the challenges and erratic time changes of Sondheim's score.
The plum role is, of course, the Witch, an interloper who moves toward center stage after intermission. Her touching aria, "Children Will Listen," is accorded all its sonorous potential in the voice of Miriam Laube, whose lush mezzo-soprano blankets every corner of the hall in this stirring song about the love and loss of parenthood.
Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s carb-consuming Red Riding Hood is the production's greatest comedic strength and Anderson proves herself a scene-stealer, especially during her encounter with the Wolf in which director Amanda Dehnert deftly takes a page from Buster Keaton to get the girl into the stomach of the hungry beast.
Jennie Greenberry richly embodies Cinderella, bringing strong musical-theater chops to "On the Steps of the Palace" and the climactic "No One Is Alone," while Miles Fletcher is an adequate if unremarkable Jack, and Royer Bockus' Rapunzel has a voice that alternates between hauntingly beautiful and nasally malign. Jeremy Peter Johnson and John Tufts team up as egotistical dueling Princes in a rousing version of "Agony." The duet is sung while riding tricycles with hobbyhorse heads, a bit of inspired stagecraft by Dehnert and prop man Jeff Maloney.
Set designer Rachel Hauk chooses a stripped-down aesthetic that bears comparison to the 2004 revival of Sweeney Todd by John Doyle; the minimalist approach adroitly complements Sondheim's full and florid style of composing. While Into the Woods is no Sweeney Todd, it remains an entertaining and engaging musical despite its nearly three-hour running time and Lapine's needlessly convoluted book about growing up and confronting the consequences of rash choices. By the time the intermission rolls around the play feels finished, only to have a new conflict arrive in the second act that feels like starting over.
Into the Woods is loaded with some of Sondheim's wittiest lyrics as well as achingly beautiful melodies. And even if it's hardly his strongest work, Sondheim on an average day is better than most composers at their best.
Cast: Kjerstine Rose Anderson, Royer Bockus, Katie Bradley, Christiana Clark, Catherine E. Coulson, Miles Fletcher, Robert Vincent Frank, Jennie Greenberry, Mauro Hantman, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Miriam A. Laube, Robin Goodrin Nordli, Howie Seago, Jeff Skowron, John Tufts, John Vickery, Rachael Warren
Book: James Lapine
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director and musical director: Amanda Dehnert
Presented by The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Music Theatre International
Set designer: Rachel Hauk
Costume designer: Linda Roethke
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Projection designer: Omar Ramos