Theater Review: INTO THE WOODS (National Tour)

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by Marc Wheeler on July 6, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


In the wake of news that Center Theatre Group, home of three major L.A. theaters, is “pausing” productions at their mid-size Mark Taper Forum and offering “select programming” at their smaller Kirk Douglas Theatre for the 2023/24 season, all eyes are on its largest and most commercially viable venue, the Ahmanson Theatre, for signs of hope in a theatrical ecosystem still fragile and reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s in this context that my internal “oh no—” reaction rang especially loud as the curtain rose on their latest offering: a touring production of the Tony-nominated Encores! revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical classic, Into the Woods.Encores! is the New York City Center’s concert series reviving American musicals. “Concert” being the operative word. That would explain my shock when the curtain rose to … no set … just an orchestra (granted, a full and lovely one expertly conducted by John Bell) atop a set of risers. To be fair, some of my favorite theatrical memories have been from shows that took full advantage of my imagination in bringing them to life. (Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol directed by Michael Arden and starring Jefferson Mays instantly comes to mind.) But this is Into the Woods, a musical famously known for its magical fairy-tale setting. Those expecting a full-scale production in a venue known for large-scale tours are likely to be taken aback, especially with a website and advertising campaign that does little, if anything, to clearly promote the show as being the concert-style production that it is.Directed by Lear deBessonet, Into the Woods features a presentational-style of acting wherein actors, often outward-facing at the front few feet of the stage, play less to each other and more to the audience. Similarly, actors don’t so much embody their characters as “wear” them like costumes. In spite of this, some performances still manage to shine quite brightly, while others feel cartoonishly contrived as actors ham it up and hold (fingers crossed) for laughs.

Gavin Creel and Katy Geraghty

Inspired by fairy-tale classics such as Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, Into the Woods is mostly family-friendly fare, yet sophisticatedly so. Its emotional second act, especially, delves into adult subject matter: namely the complexities and moral ambiguities of life beyond “happy ever after.” Sondheim’s music and lyrics are lush, intricate, heartfelt, while Lapine’s book is a web of finely-spun beauty. That’s not to say this richly-layered work is easy to tease apart, especially in a concert-style format. Woods may be inspired by children’s stories, but its converging, convoluted storylines pack a lot of information throughout. (I’ve seen the show many times and I’m still working out details of its plot — a lot of which gets explained quickly via song lyrics, so pay attention.) Still, one can easily get the gist of what’s going on and be thoroughly entertained.

Ta'Nika Gibson, Brooke Ishibashi, Nancy Opel

My reservations with this concert-style production aside, if there’s reason to enter these woods — beyond the genius of Sondheim and Lapine — it’s for its inhabitants: the cast. While there are certainly performances I found lacking (Cole Thompson as Jack — of beanstalk lore — is understated, even seemingly out of breath in his big solo number “Giants in the Sky”; whereas Nancy Opel is overstated as Cinderella’s Stepmother), others are much more commendable — exceptional even.

Montego Glover

As the Witch, Montego Glover didn’t quite win me over until “Stay With Me,” her robust ballad to tower-locked Rapunzel (beauteous songbird Alysia Velez). In tights, fur coat, and silly wolf ears, Gavin Creel straddles the campy and creepy to mediocre effect while taunting a red-caped passerby in the easily-bungled “Hello, Little Girl.” Even if he’d hoped his big, bad Wolf would be seen as “scary and dangerous” rather than as a “daffy perv in the woods,” in this outfit he doesn’t stand a chance. In a new set of tights, however, he redeems himself alongside Rapunzel’s Prince (Jason Forbach) in “Agony,” a charming duet wherein the crooning brothers sing about the pains of princely bedazzlement.

Jason Forbach and Gavin Creel

With his fantastic timing and delivery, the infectiously endearing David Patrick Kelly hits all the right notes as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. As the granddaughter to Granny (a hilarious, pint-sized Felicia Curry), the short-and-saccharine Katy Geraghty is a ball of fury as Little Red Ridinghood: with wit as sharp as her switchblade, this cut-above — slays. Proving the production’s heart and soul, Stephanie J. Block is an absolute triumph as the Baker’s Wife. While she delights in “Any Moment” with co-star Creel and in the fabulous duet “It Takes Two” with her onstage/offstage husband (Sebastian Arcelus as the Baker), it’s the depth, nuance, and vocal prowess she brings to “Moments in the Woods” that’re reason enough for a ticket.

Stephanie J. Block, Sebastian Arcelus, and Katy Geraghty

In a hypothetical production of Into the Woods, perhaps in a much smaller theater, where a band of actors sitting around a campfire, for example, decide to bring the show to life with whatever make-shift props and costumes they have available to them, one could more easily accept a bare-bones “magical kingdom.” But the fact that this production features a few set pieces dropped in from the Ahmanson’s high ceiling is a reminder that a fuller set is theoretically possible, but not fully realized. Regardless, with a smattering of well-placed tree trunks, set designer David Rockwell makes the most of this scaled-down vision for the show, even as it does little to clarify key plot points and locales.

David Patrick Kelly, Kennedy Kanagawa, and Cole Thompson

There are, however, other notable design elements. Beautifully designed by James Ortiz, Milky White, Jack’s beloved bone-dry cow (enthusiastically puppeteered by Kennedy Kanagawa) is a crowd-pleaser. As are Ortiz’s “hints” of a roaming giant. Similarly, Cookie Jordan goes to great lengths and succeeds in crafting Rapunzel’s long golden locks. Despite costume designer Andrea Hood’s sillier choices (e.g. the aforementioned Wolf outfit, or a Witch mask that reads a bit too obvious — perhaps apropos for the concert-style format), the vivid array of colors in her overall aesthetic — most pronounced in a dazzling purple Witch gown — are where her design skills most shine.While the concert format of the production inhibits full-scale dancing, associate choreographer Matthew Steffens and choreographer Lorin Latarro work their magic in smaller ways. The bodily movements they give to the dueling princes in “Agony,” for instance, elevates the number and amplifies the laughs it earns. Meanwhile, music supervisor Rob Berman (via music director John Bell) is to be lauded in bringing Jonathan Tunick’s rich orchestrations so vividly to life.I don’t really blame Encores! here; they fully admit they’re a concert series and, sure, they deliver quite well in that specific context. But I can’t help but “wish, more than anything, more than life …” we were treated to a more fully-realized production. I wonder: would being forewarned of the concert-style format of this production have changed my experience of it? Perhaps, maybe a little; or — maybe not, it’s hard to say. I think a better question is: should any theatergoer have to do their “research”  — or “manage” (i.e. lower) their expectations — in order to get the most of their experience? I don’t think so. This taps into a much broader topic, namely: in our post-COVID era, why are many theaters shuttering or noticing a decline in attendance? That brings up a whole host of issues, and I can just hear CTG saying about this one: “Sure, it doesn’t have much of a set, and maybe we downplayed or left that part out, but our DEI gods will be quite pleased with the non-traditional, “color-conscious” casting, and frankly, comrades-in-training, so should you.”And now, I’m afraid I’m getting too far “into the woods” on the problems plaguing not only L.A. theater but the culture and theater world/”community” at large these past many years. Perhaps this is a conversation best suited for another day, friends … another “woulda” … inhabited by adults … as lost as children.

photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Into the Woods
national tour
ends on July 30. 2023 at the CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles
tour ends in L.A.
for more info, visit Woods Tour

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Randy July 8, 2023 at 12:09 am

Just returned from the Ahmanson, and was amazed and delighted by the audience reaction to this lauded revival. I saw the original Broadway production in 1988, and the first major revival at the Ahmanson in 2002.
Since that production was more elaborate than the current one, you needn’t pretend to speculate whether the versatile redesigned Ahmanson is technically capable of a fully produced musical. However, in every other way, your review misses the creativity of this Tony nominated, Grammy winning version of Sondheim and Lapine’s enduring classic. For starters, the cast was universally excellent in both acting and singing abilities.
The orchestra, fortunately, as noted, using the great Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations was top notch, as was the brisk and clever staging and choreography. I can guarantee that at tonight’s performance, no one left wanting for something better or more complete. The response was never out of place, but was more like arena concert enthusiasm.
Sometimes, less is really more.


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