BWW Reviews: OSF's Breathlessly Enchanting INTO THE WOODS at The Wallis
Prepare to be thoroughly enchanted by Oregon Shakespeare Festival's transfer of INTO THE WOODS, newly arrived at the Wallis Center in Beverly Hills. It is, without a doubt, the most inventive and inspiring production of this Sondheim musical I have ever seen. Amanda Dehnert's direction delights at every turn such that watching this INTO THE WOODS left my heart bursting with unadulterated joy, devastated by its unflinching honesty, and breathless with anticipation of each moment to come.
I have a special affection for this particular musical with its messages about the choices we make and the moments that define our character. I've seen good productions, not so good ones, lavish treatments, and stripped down versions, and while each in its own way has offered insight into what it means to be human, none of them have presented as clear picture of the characters' motivations as this one. As Dehnert weaves together the fairy tale stories, both musically and dramatically (that's the added benefit of both directing and musical directing a production), the entanglements become surprisingly vivid.
It's a vision that is entirely fresh, from character choices to design decisions to the treatment of plot points, and it is one of the best gifts you could possibly give yourself this holiday season.
It begins with actors in street clothes milling around the stage. Some are at music stands while others are casually conversing and settling in for what looks like a rehearsal. Little by little, with perfect diction and speedy efficiency, the cast introduces the audience to its uniquely fashioned style of storytelling and enters the tale with an opening number that makes connections, both humorous and poignant, between its characters.
A pan with the word "cow" painted on it becomes a woman wrapped like a mummy carrying a cow's head to play Milky White (Catherine E. Coulson) while a tiny child's sweater in a closet returns on a lanky Jack (Miles Fletcher) - yes, the Beanstalk one - who has almost outgrown it. Two innocuous looking actresses (Katie Bradley and Christine Clark) gradually transform into flamboyantly clothed stepsisters whose bug-like look sports everything from giant Gucci logos across their busts to ridiculous fluorescent green wigs atop their entitled heads. How fortunate that they don't know they'll go blind later and be unable to appreciate their designer couture in a darker world. Cinderella's (Jennie Greenberry) gown magically zip lines over the audience to land near a post and the Witch (Miriam A. Laube) arrives in a wheelchair pushed by her nursemaid in modern dress who will eventually become Rapunzel (Royer Bockus) in the tower. The significance of this reversal of dependency will not be lost on anyone who has seen the show before.
Watch for the connections and you'll be amazed at how detailed Dehnert's work is with the show from beginning to end. The massive swirl of sound and movement escalates until everything coalesces in perfect harmony and the house lights dim. We are finally, and magically, into the woods.
This is a production that brings everyone into the thick of it, including the audience. Some of them will stand in for minor characters like birds and a fake white "cow" covered in flour to replace Milky White who keels over before she can be delivered to the witch. Dehnert takes her actors out into the house again and again, further bridging the theatrical distance you often find in the theatre.
She dresses the stage with an 18-piece orchestra in full view, dividing them into three sections; one on the platform above and two framing the main playing area bridged by the pianist center stage (a smiling Matt Goodrich who is enjoying the story as much as anyone). Martin Majkut conducts from the house right front seats, sidestepping characters who race by him as Jane Cox's purposeful lighting directs attention to the current moment in play. This weaving together of stagecraft elements with so much delightful ingenuity makes her production more fun than you can even imagine, and only asks that the audience be willing to take a leap of faith along with the characters.
Most of the original cast from OSF's summer production has made the transfer, with the addition of Broadway veteran John Vickery taking over the roles of the Narrator & Mysterious Man and local actor Jeff Skowron as the Baker. Skowron is no stranger to the role having recently played the Baker in 3-D Theatricals' production of INTO THE WOODS earlier this year.
Anyone who has worked on the show will tell you that it requires an uncanny sense of timing to make all the pieces fit. This cast has mastered the challenges of Sondheim's score and James Lapine's book so beautifully that you will hear things in a lyric you've never heard before, even though they've been there all along. Their timing is flawless and their cue pick-up is a study in how to connect the dots of a show so it lifts and breathes like a living being. By the time they get to the last verse of the Finale, surprisingly sung as an a cappella choral arrangement which fades slowly to the lone voice of the Baker singing to the son he so longingly wished for, you'll be a puddle. The effect is enough to melt even the most cynical in attendance and Skowron holds it like a tear drop suspended in time.
As his wife, Rachael Warren is two parts practical problem solver and one part imaginative dreamer which makes her not only likable but relatable and without the bitter edge that sometimes finds its way into this character. Watching her watch the two Princes (John Tufts and Jeremy Peter Johnson) like a wide-eyed school girl caught up in the drama of a romance movie is priceless. Tufts, with his continually raised eyebrow and Gerber baby curl, and Johnson, flaunting a white shock of hair and swaggering hips, will have you laughing out loud with their endless prancing and posing on steeds made of hobby horse heads and three-wheeled bicycles.
In another beautiful casting decision, the Wolf is played by deaf actor Howie Seago who interacts with Little Red Riding Hood, played by a comical Kjerstine Rose Anderson, via American Sign Language. Johnson nicely doubles as his speaking and singing voice to complete the picture. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, this duo looks like they're fresh off a gig as extras on Duck Dynasty and their stage time is well worth the effort.
Miriam A. Laube's portrayal of the Witch is a marvelous combination of trickery and pain. Of all of the characters, her journey is the most heartbreaking in this production. The way Dehnert stages both Rapunzel's death and the witch's disappearance are revelatory and quite powerful in the direct hits they make to the heart. Laube's "Lament" scene is simply staged to connect the audience with the real suffering of a mother's grief in an uncensored and emotionally raw way, and the latter scene comes directly from an often overlooked lyric in "Last Midnight" - "All right, mother, when? Lost the beans again! Punish me the way you did then." When you see it you'll understand. Like my guest said, "I can barely breathe."
Greenberry is wonderful as Cinderella, with an essence and vocal maturity that can't help but remind one of the lovely Audra McDonald. She contributes a depth of character and inherent goodness to the story that makes this unconventional fairy tale more than just a silly frolic in the woods.
This is the kind of musical theatre experience I live for. It is a very special production; one that is full of genuine creativity, enough to restore your faith in the magic of theatre. Without reservation I recommend you add INTO THE WOODS to your holiday to-do list.
And a final note about The Wallis - if you haven't been there yet, the historic 1933 Beverly Hills Post Office building is an architectural landmark that has been redesigned as a cultural arts center. It's been open for a year and parking is easy (where can you say that in LA?) since the structure includes attached underground parking as well as an additional lot across the street. It certainly makes it easy to go to the theater.
INTO THE WOODS
December 2 - 21, 2014
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday Evenings at 8 pm
Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm and 7pm
Tickets: $29 - $110
(310) 746-4000 or www.thewallis.org
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Pictured above: The cast of Into the Woods
Photo credit: Kevin Parry