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BWW Review: A Refreshing Stroll INTO THE WOODS at Ahmanson

Into the Woods/book by James Lapine/music & lyrcs by Stephen Sondheim/Fiasco Theater Company Production Tour/Ahmanson/directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld/through May 14

I first saw Into the Woods in 1987 when it premiered in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre. At that point, the Witch was not the leader of the pack; in New York the role was enlarged in 1988 and Bernadette Peters played her on Broadway. The play which cleverly intertwines favorite fairytales Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel with a new story The Baker and his Wife, somehow left me cold. The music by Sondheim, even if it was not his very best scrore, is more than worthwhile, especially with "No One Is Alone", "Agony" and "Children Will Listen". Sondheim is Sondheim. In my mind, the stories were too overly silly and pat. I wanted more from it.

Now the Fiasco Theater Company that mounted revivals of the show on Broadway and in London is making a short tour across country with a current stop at the Ahmanson through May 14. This company has reduced, scaled down the set (designer Derek McLane), keeping all the actors onstage throughout, and having many of them play more than one role. It's a morality piece somewhat like The Fantasticks, and a little like the John Doyle version of Sweeney Todd, where the actors address the audience before the action begins, and some of them play musical instruments as well. It is a real ensemble piece that focuses first and foremost on the storytelling, making that the priority. It is by far the best version I have seen, and I came away appreciating the show so much more.

For those unfamiliar with James Lapine's book, here's a brief rehash of the basic plot. Each of the fairytale characters wants something desperately and gets it by the end of Act One. In Act Two what they have won changes for the worse, and they are forced to accept and live with these changes. Cinderella's (Laurie Veldheer) Prince Charming (Anthony Chatmon II) strays, mischievously seeking out affairs with other women; Little Red Riding Hood (Lisa Helmi Johanson) loses both her grandmother and her mother; Rapunzel (also Johanson), though free, must try to forgive her mother the Witch (Stephanie Umoh); Jack (Patrick Mulryan) loses his pal Milky White (Darick Pead) and is stalked for killing the Giant; the Baker (Evan Harrington) and his Wife (Eleasha Gamble) who are granted a child, thanks to the Witch removing a curse, start to disconnect, putting the upbringing of their child in the utmost peril. In Act Two, which to my mind, was always quite contrived, the Giant's wife wants revenge on Jack and will stop at nothing to destroy the rest of the town. How the others plot to bring her down is really not the most interesting element at play, but what happens at the end where lives remain imperfect after her demise, and townsfolk reach out to assist one another, to love as a real community.

Every actor under Noah Broady and Ben Steinfeld's finely paced and expertly staged direction, has his or her turn in the spotlight. No one outdoes anyone else. All have great singing voices and acting chops. Add to the 11-member cast Fred Rose, Bonne Kramer as Jack's mother, and Evan Rees at the piano. Kudos to Lisa Shriver for her exuberant choreography and to music supervisor Matt Castle.

What I particularly loved within the fine work of this company was the offbeat humor that emanated unexpectedly, almost as in an improv. Milky White loves Jack and vice versa, so when Jack is forced by his mother to sell him, it's a tearful moment. Pead's cries, screams and even a sweet kiss are joyful to behold. Could Jack, a defintie mama's boy, have been gay? Maybe, but the way he treats his "pet" and the way the "pet" reacts to it is most precious, an assuredly loving relationship in the storyline, perhaps the only one.

Go see this production of Into the Woods! What this marvelous ensemble achieve onstage is phenomenal. You will never see another production of the musical as mirthful and rewarding as this!

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