The magic of fairy-tales is that they can be repurposed to nearly any setting and story format and still evoke the same power. From ABC's Once Upon a Time to countless novel retellings to Disney films, fairy tales are a wealth of inspiration. Their themes of romance, redemption, kindness, morality, and happy endings resonate across continents and centuries, always speaking to something deeper within us. One of the cream of the crop remains Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical "Into the Woods," now playing in the acclaimed Fiasco Theater production at Center Theater Group's Ahmanson Theater.
The original production bet heavy on magic and special effects with whimsical costumes, a use of trapdoors, and Bernadette Peters' breathtaking transformation from hideous hag to young and beautiful enchantress. Disney doubled down on this magical allure of the fairy-tale world with their 2014 film adaptation. But the appeal of "Into the Woods" has always been its ability to strip down the fairy-tale, to ask what happens after happily-ever-after and delve into a murkier psychology and morality than the black and white conclusions of the Brothers Grimm. This production brings that to the forefront, letting the story and its themes take center stage.
The Fiasco Theater team strips down the show with a strong ensemble of actors taking on multiple roles and pulling double duty as they provide the orchestrations with a range of instruments and props onstage. Costumes, designed by Whitney Lochner, primarily consist of a cream-colored base which the characters layer signature pieces on top of depending on who they're playing. In a moment of real whimsy, Cinderella's stepsisters hold up a pink, flowery drape on a curtain rod, cinched to resemble two dresses. Instead of a full wolf costume and make-up, they use a mounted and stuffed wolf head.
This inventiveness and sense of play that suggests this is a group of players putting on a show from an assortment of found objects defines the production. A series of ropes hanging from the ceiling in Derek McLane's set design make up the back drop that believably create a sense of the "woods" while also metaphorically hinting at other themes in the play – most crucially, the ties that bind and the value of setting aside selfish desire for civic good.
While some might bristle at this lack of flashy stage magic, ultimately, it helps weave a homespun spell that is more powerful than any projections, smoke machines, or trap doors. The onstage ensemble that makes up actors and orchestra are stripping "Into the Woods" down to its beating, vulnerable heart and holding it out for all to see. In a play laden with metaphor and double meaning, the simplicity of the staging helps to enhance that and open it up to audience interpretation rather than tying it to any one specific reading.
Indeed, some of the simplest moments create the most charming and captivating stage magic. The cast uses interplay of light and shadow to create more challenging staging like the Wolf eating Red Riding Hood and the Giant's demise. Rather than feeling childish or low-rent, these moments resonate with the audience on a deeper level, taking us back to shadow puppets and imaginary worlds of our childhood. They feel more real and more visceral than any more realistic rendering could achieve.
The production opens up the heart and emotion of the play — its comments on the complexity of life and grief and our need to find solace in each other become richer and more nuanced when given so much breathing room on a technical scale. On the flip side, the humor of James Lapine's witty book (and Sondheim's always clever lyrics) also gets its due. The laughs are hearty and abundant, and most notably, more pointed and present in a second act typically known for its dark tone.
All of this, of course, is only possible through the seamless nature of its ridiculously talented ensemble. The actors transition between characters and from musician to performer seamlessly – they have built a true ensemble where every member is on equal footing, from Milky White (Darick Pead) to the Witch (Mary Kate Moore). Instead of having one specific narrator, they all take turns, solidifying the sense that they're a unified moving body, rather than a series of individual actors with their own self-involved narratives. It's rare to see an ensemble this attuned to each other – you quickly get sucked into the magic of the world rather than focusing on who is creating what sound effect with what instrument (though part of the delight is also noting the ingenuity at play throughout).
It is difficult to pick cast members to single out as they all shine at various times – understudy Mary Kate Moore bringing a Bernadette Peters-esque energy to the proceedings as the Witch while remaining entirely unique at the same time; Patrick Mulryan blending Jack's boyishness and journey into adulthood seamlessly; and Bonne Kramer nailing her bassoon playing, as well as both Jack's Mother's tender-hearted world-weariness and Cinderella's Stepmother's self-absorption. Understudy Alanna Saunders imbued Cinderella with a touching sense of a woman confounded by societal expectation and her own desire – she brings the most depth to the role this reviewer has ever seen.
Though, it must be said, that Darick Pead nearly steals the entire show with his hysterical take on Milky White and Rapunzel's Prince – his facial antics, vocal acrobatics, and physical comedy combine to make side-splitting farce. He is so funny that you find yourself continually wishing for longer moments with him onstage (and makes Anthony Chatmon II's choice lines and comedic timing pale in comparison).
For musical theater-goers, "Into the Woods" can easily seem tired, with seemingly endless community and school revivals being staged every year. The Fiasco Theater company breathes new life into what has become a classic, allowing you to see the beauty, heartache, and simple truths of "Into the Woods" in startling and refreshing ways. This is a production that will make you want to go into the woods over and over again…
"Into the Woods" is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre (135 N. Grand Ave.) through May 14th. Tickets start at $25.00. Visit www.centertheatregroup.org
Contact Associate Arts and Culture Editor Maureen Lee Lenker at firstname.lastname@example.org