Los Angeles Theater Review: INTO THE WOODS (Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Wallis)

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by Tony Frankel on December 4, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Somewhere between “Once Upon a Time” and “Happily Ever After” there is a very adult world of tests, losses, disappointments, and grief. Despite this, we assert our agency; or as the baker’s wife sings in Into the Woods, “If you know what you want, then you go and you find it, and you get it.” The challenges and complications of getting what you want, or what you thought you wanted, are at the heart of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s rightfully popular 1987 Broadway musical.

Royer Bockus as Rapunzel and Miriam A Laube as The Witch - Photo by Kevin ParryYet of the dozen or so productions I have seen since its 1986 inception at the Old Globe, very few have gotten to the heart of these fairy tale characters. It seems the bigger and splashier the production, the more the soul is lost—not to mention Sondheim’s tricky lyrics, many of which are filled with significant exposition, and fly by with the speed of a witch’s broom.

Fortunately, newer presentations are beginning to deconstruct the proceedings, offering bare-bones productions that center on the very human plight of the adventurous souls who venture into their personal heart of darkness. Director Amanda Dehnert’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, which opened last night at the Wallis, does just that. As she has proved in her music hall version of My Fair Lady and her magic show version of The Fantasticks, Dehnert, who is also music director, certainly knows how to freshen up dialogue and tunes.

Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Little Red Riding Hood - Photo by Kevin ParrySondheim (music and lyrics) and Lapine (book) mash up a slew of well-known fairy tales to tell a delightful, brand-new story: A Baker and his Wife search for four objects necessary to break a witch’s curse. The creators utilize over 25 intertwining characters—including Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack (of Beanstalk fame)—as they all search for their desires among the darkness of gnarled trees.

In the second act, wishes are fulfilled but happiness remains elusive, and the diminishing ensemble increasingly realizes that actions have consequences, not just for individuals but for the community at large. Not normally associated with standards, Sondheim wrote some of his best standalone songs in this act, including “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.” With a 17-member cast rich in distinctive character vocals and emotional reality, the dark second act really packs a wallop.

2 The cast of Into the Woods - Photo by Kevin Parry

You definitely use your imagination for Woods at the Wallis: The only thing on Rachel Hauck’s two-story scaffold set is the 18-member orchestra (solid under Martin Majkut, conducting from the audience at the lip of the stage). Linda Roethke’s whimsical costumes, a mash up of Disney animated movies and modern dress, fill the stage with color. The device to have actors begin in street clothes reading from music stands is quickly dropped, never revisited, and wholly unnecessary. It’s all about believing in these characters, and we get that in spades.

L to R - Catherine E Coulson as Milky White and Rachael Warren as Baker's Wife - Photo by Kevin Parry

Even in this atmosphere of modern-day storytelling, some choices feel anachronistic, excessive, and downright odd: The Wolf and Red Riding Hood use ASL to communicate; the golden egg-laying hen sells Android Tablets; actors vogue and disco; and some characters comment on the dialogue. Also, when songs are delivered from the set’s upper tier, it serves to detach us from the experience.

L to R - John Tufts as Rapunzel's Prince and Jeremy Peter Johnson as Cinderella's Prince - Photo by Kevin Parry

The creators caution us to beware of what we wish for—once happy endings arrive, there will be consequences for what we had to do to get there. While there may be times I wished that this production took itself even more seriously, it definitely won me over.

Background - Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Little Red Riding Hood, Howie Seago as the Wolf - Foreground- Jeremy Peter Johnson as Voice of the Wolf - Photo by Kevin Parryphotos by Kevin Parry

Into the Woods
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Bram Goldsmith Theatre
Wallis Annenberg Center
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on December 21, 2014
for tickets, call 310-746-4000
or visit www.thewallis.org

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