‘Into The Woods’ at the Ahmanson: A Theatre Review by Keri Tombazian

The opening night audience of Into the Woods was slow to be seated making curtain nearly twenty finger-drumming minutes late.  Between that and the actors meandering out onto the stage, waving at the audience prior to curtain, the prospects for a theatrical experience worthy of Stephen Sondheim’s giant work seemed slim.  Happily, first impressions sometimes lie.  The Fiasco Theatre Company Ensemble production of Into the Woods is everything it ought to be.

In the original Broadway production, twenty-three actors brought the story to life.  In this reinvention, not only do just eleven actors fill all of those roles, they fill them to overflowing ­­– each equipped with a cup of joy, a true voice, a sense of mischief, and one or more instruments.  The actors provide the orchestra in real time as they dash from scene to instrument, upstage, downstage, right and left with the glee of children playing make believe. Musical Director Evan Rees grounds them all from his seat at the piano from downbeat to final curtain (stepping away from the piano for a moment into the role of a perfectly put upon brown cow in Act I.)  The set pieces are somehow both spare and plenty.  Set under a proscenium of distressed piano parts arching over the action is a fine thicket of ginormous ropes ready for swallowing up little girls on their way to grandma’s house and witches who have grown weary of the world.

One of the most often produced Sondheim musicals, Into the Woods sets the main characters of four fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella) on a journey, the lesson of which might be summed up as, “The Truth About The Dark Road to ‘Happy Ever After’ And Why We Must Take It At All Costs.”   Sondheim is one of our generations’ most thoughtful philosophers.

Such was the mastery of each actors’ performance, they must each have a word of praise here:  charming Anthony Chatmon II (Cinderella’s Prince/Lucinda/Wolf); earnest Eleasha Gamble (Baker’s Wife); true Evan Harrington (Baker); hilarious Lisa Helmi Johanson (Little Red Ridinghood/Rapunzel); agile Bonnie Kramer (Cinderella’s Stepmother, Jack’s Mother); blithe Patrick Mulryan (Jack/Steward); scene stealing Darick Pead (Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince/Fight Captain); captivating Fred Rose (Mysterious Man); beguiling Stephanie Umoh (Witch); dear Laurie Veldheer (Cinderella/Granny); and fantastic Evan Rees (Pianist/Musical Director/Cow II).

Into the Woods began its journey at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California in 1986, debuted on Broadway in 1987 to critical acclaim, with Tony Awards aplenty, enjoyed a 2002 revival at the Ahmanson and back to Broadway, and has been produced and imagined in hundreds of productions large and small around the globe.  For the Fiasco to mine new gold from this mother lode, thirty-years hence, says as much about the company’s wit as it does about the musical’s magic.

My only beef is that while I love a clever breaking of the fourth wall (and the Princes do it with great humor in their perfect rendering of “Agony” in both Acts I and II), I do not want to be responsible for mentally constructing the wall before the show begins.  The actors wandering onstage before curtain waving to the audience deflates the magic.  Perhaps it is an attempt to play out in a literal way, the Fiasco Theatre’s precept about the collaborative relationship between the players and the audience; but it makes for a soft start to the show.  But once it starts oh what a journey “into the woods then out of the woods and happy ever after.”   Read more about this remarkable theatre company here.

Spring is well upon us and the days fly by.  Don’t miss Into The Woods now through May 14th. Tickets are available now!

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