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‘Into the Woods’ Brings Broadway Brilliance to L.A.’s Ahmanson: Review



In “Into the Woods,” the viewers laughs on the gluttony of the Little Pink Ridinghood character, particularly within the earliest, most intentionally cartoony elements of the manufacturing. However in a way, the gang is getting off on gorging, as effectively, since that is the last word having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too present. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine weren’t too proud to prepare dinner up their 1987 basic with copious quantities of Mad magazine-style spoofery — or Looney Tunes-level laughs, even — and but you’ll be able to really feel like these seemingly empty energy are justified, understanding you’ll be gulping again salty tears by the top. “Into the Woods” is as overstuffed with characters and concepts as any musical ever has been, but when everybody does their job proper, you permit feeling such as you’ve simply been fed a superbly balanced meal, and never a morsel extra.

A nationwide tour of final yr’s much-loved Broadway revival has simply touched down at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre for its closing cease, and boy, is everybody doing their job proper. How usually, as a non-New Yorker, do you get to inform folks that one of many half-dozen best American musicals has landed domestically in a model that’s as world-class and near flawless as any fashionable model is ever more likely to get? If this have been really a fairy story, “Into the Woods” would prolong on the Music Middle for years, and L.A. Sondheim followers might cease in each six months or so for a non secular booster shot in opposition to the pandemic of giants within the land. However because the present makes it its mission to remind, endings are fleeting, not ever-after, so 4 weeks is all anybody has acquired to get pleasure from an incarnation so joyful it’s just like the dwelling embodiment of the top of Act 1.

Because the current run of “Sunday in the Park With George” on the Pasadena Playhouse reminded Angelenos, Sondheim has a factor for exhibits during which the second act may be very totally different from the primary, with “Into the Woods” because the extra universally well-known instance. The self-esteem — not as novel because it was in 1987, although simply as intelligent in execution — is that the world of fantasy bedtime tales is admittedly an intersectional novel reasonably than a collection of brief tales, with 4 important storylines and about as many diversionary branches. On the coronary heart of the ensemble piece is a childless couple (performed by IRL marrieds Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus) all too determined to comply with the instructions of a proudly depraved witch (Montego Glover) about tips on how to undo a fertility curse.

These directions quantity to grand-theft-Grimm, because the child coveters go on an epic journey and discover that everybody they should steal from or swindle is on a woodsy journey of their very own and never keen to surrender their treasured. There’s Cinderella, together with her particular slipper (Diane Phelan); Rapunzel, aka sister-golden-hair shock (Alysia Velez); Jack, of “…and the beanstalk” fame (Cole Thompson), along with his sickly pet cow in tow; and Ridinghood (Katy Geraghty), snacking away like a pubescent stoner, oblivious to why this couple lusts after her pink coat much more than the Wolf (Gavin Creel) craves her pasty flesh. Tertiary gamers embody a narrator (David Patrick Kelly), who… effectively, let’s simply say that if you happen to ever thought narration in a play was expendable, so does the fourth-wall-breaking solid right here, actually; and a sibling pair of princes (Creel, once more, and Jason Forbach) whose shared self-importance of their show-stopper, “Agony,” most likely set the usual for latter-day Disney schmuck-hunk villains like Gaston and Prince Hans.

Will all of them reside (or die) unhappily ever after? Does a large shmush within the woods? The severity of their fates is pretty unpredictable; even if you happen to’ve seen the present earlier than, the sudden demise of one of the crucial sympathetic characters nonetheless has the facility to attract a pant. In Act 2, “Into the Woods” has a physique depend virtually like a slasher film, which generally is a little startling to anybody who acquired too lulled by the comparatively extra benign shenanigans of Act 1, which solely has happy-go-lucky stuff like individuals getting their eyes pecked out or heels sawed off. The legend (which is true, based on Lapine!) is that throughout the present’s very first run within the ‘80s, a busload’s value of theatergoers thought the entire thing was over at intermission and headed throughout the car parking zone to go dwelling once they have been coaxed again into the theater. On the Ahmanson, the present nonetheless have that impact on newbies, as one first-timer may very well be heard within the foyer telling buddies there couldn’t presumably be something left to settle in a closing hour.

There’s, and a part of that’s lastly, as soon as and for all, wiping the style of the 2014 Disney film adaptation out of everybody’s minds. It’s not that Rob Marshall’s adaptation was a complete catastrophe (the lingering common consensus amongst “Into the Woods” followers principally quantities to: “Not nearly as bad as I expected”), however it was a filmic remedy of a tragicomedy that gave the impression to be about equally afraid of each slapstick and sorrow, favoring an inoffensive, mushy center. What a reduction it’s, then, for anybody who may not have seen a stage model since then, to re-experience all of the chortle-out-loud moments that acquired undercut for the aim of display screen realism. (It’s value declaring that the present’s polarized moods usually are not so schematically cut up up that the authors don’t throw in loads of snicker traces even after issues get deeply unhappy and darkish.) How a lot better, on prime of that, when two of the theater’s nice conjoined show-closers — “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” — arrive just a little earlier than 11 and, on cue, you end up checking your tear ducts, not your watch.

This “Into the Woods” brilliantly hits each hilarious or somber word it must, due to the brisk, good route of Lear deBessonet, resisting any temptation to broaden on the minimalistic however excellent staging she instigated with as a New York Metropolis Middle Encores! quickie run.It’s additionally due toan ensemble solid of anybody’s desires, with arguably the 4 most important elements — the baker and his spouse, the witch and the twin a part of the wolf/prince — crammed by actors indelibly repeating the roles they performed on Broadway and, in some way, by no means visibly exhausted on the shut of a six-month tour.

The query of who the actual “star” is in an ensemble as democratic as a “Woods” manufacturing usually will get determined by stunt casting, by default. Lapine has stated that the witch is the actual hero of the present, being probably the most dependable truth-teller. (“You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice… I’m just right,” goes her well-known cut-down line.) That actually proves true when it’s Meryl Streep put into the position, for the film — or, when a 2002 revival originated on the Ahmanson earlier than happening to Broadway, it was Vanessa Williams within the half. Bernadette Peters within the authentic run? You couldn’t name it a contest. However for the aim of night issues out, it’s good having much less of a marquee title casting spells, with Glover ably making the transitions from an almost Disney-animated crone to glamorous diva to, lastly, a sort of rageaholic sage. That she has just a little Eartha Kitt in her doesn’t damage in any respect, when she’s tasked with among the present’s sexier or angrier asides.

The one actor who will get to be extra of a showboat than the witch is whoever’s handed the wolf ears, and subsequently the prince’s crown — on this case, Creel, who’s so impossibly entertaining in his lupine part that it’s virtually the wolf’s early demise that hits hardest, even if you happen to’re clued in sufficient to know that the actor will hardly be sitting out the rest of the present. With out his invoking anybody inspiration, Creel’s wolf is the closest factor we’re ever going to get to a top-flank Elvis routine embedded in a Sondheim present. Get pleasure from that mixture of electrical energy and complex sophistry whereas it lasts. As Ridinghood, in the meantime, Geraghty practically matches Creel, snicker for snicker, in a single position. Having the damsel-in-distress really be a knife-wielding juvenile delinquent runs the chance of coming off as a one-joke conceit, now as in 1987, however Geraghty does wonders not simply retaining the laughter coming however getting just a little extra visibly human with the sexual-awakening quantity “I Know Things Now.” (Thanks goodness that, within the theater, we will have that tune sung by an grownup once more, with out the icky implications that got here with casting youthful for the movie.)

From L to R: Kennedy Kanagawa and Cole Thompson within the Broadway manufacturing of “Into the Woods.” “Into the Woods” will play at Middle Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre June 27 to July 30, 2023 as a part of the 2022-2023 Season. Photograph by: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman

There’s additionally a key position that may go unmentioned among the many most important ones simply because generally it’s fulfilled by an actor however extra usually by an inanimate prop. That will be Milky White, the saddest sack on the planet’s lengthy historical past of cows, caught up in a tug of struggle between his beloved keeper Jack and the mercenary voyagers who see her as a stepping stone to a child. In 2002’s L.A./Broadway productions, Chad Kimball made a reputation for himself because the cow, bravely taking up a job generally fulfilled by paper mache. This Milky represents the best  compromise between human and prop, envisioned as an accordion-like skeletal determine dropped at life, puppeteer-style, by Kennedy Kanagawa (one other of the dozen Broadway solid holdovers). Collectively, the bony cow and Kanagawa have their very own pathetic starpower. With the Ahmanson web site promoting that Milky White shall be out there for picture ops at a wine reception on July 6, actually, that is perhaps all of the meet-and-greet anybody wants this yr.

However the “leading” roles, if they’ll actually be stated to exist in “Into the Woods,” appear to have shifted again to the baker and his spouse, with Sara Bareilles having taken on the latter for Broadway final yr and husband-and-wife Arcelus and Block having taken them over for the shut of that run and into this tour. The baker position is, if not a thankless process, a taxing one, inasmuch as he drives a lot of the motion by sheer ineffectualness, albeit with the fixed menace of graduating to actual virility or accomplishment. Arcelus virtually tasks an excessive amount of can-do spirit to be fairly proper enjoying such a timid soul, however he manages the journey from loser to doable chief effectively, and is simply the stand-in the lads within the viewers will want as their minds wander to whether or not they’ve been well-served or failed by father figures, or as dads themselves.

But when this skews near turning into anyone’s showcase in any respect, specifically, it comes closest to being Block’s. She’s so highly effective in her preliminary obsession with turning into a mom, then her sudden starvation to be a lover, that you just are inclined to neglect that her character behaves with as a lot careless, laughable, disturbing venality as any of the others. Isn’t the baker’s spouse the situational ethicist who sings, “The ends justify the beans” (the closest factor to a groaner within the Sondheim songbook)? Doesn’t she cheat? Didn’t she drag poor Milky White throughout the hefty size of the Ahmanson stage? All that, and but Block will get among the greatest physical-comedy laughs of the present when she will get virtually orgasmic simply encountering a prince within the woods… simply earlier than prompting a heartbreaking wistfulness together with her philosophical solo ballad, “Moments in the Woods.” It’s a hell of a present, to have the ability to recuperate proper after subjecting as good and sympathetic an actor as Block to one of many musical’s most crushing moments.

From L to R: Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus within the Broadway manufacturing of “Into the Woods.” “Into the Woods” will play at Middle Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre June 27 to July 30, 2023 as a part of the 2022-2023 Season. Photograph by: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.
Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman

Block will get one of the crucial well-known verses, recalibrating her sense of self within the wake of a tryst: “Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’/When you’re back to ‘or’/Makes the ‘or’ mean more/Than it did before.” (As the children would possibly say, about all of the innuendo on this rating, IYKYK.) Sondheim’s lyrics and Lapine’s e-book are stuffed with dozens, possibly tons of, extra aphorisms the place that one got here from, after all. For a present that recollects the work of animator Tex Avery or Mad journal satirist Frank Jacobs, “Into the Woods” can also be denser with haunting truths than absolutely anything this facet of Shakespeare’s funnier tragedies. There’s not a lot about probably the most core components of human existence that doesn’t discover a place on this initially frothy piece: greed, lust and the everlasting casting of blame; the faint hope of breaking the chains of generational sin; the elusive duties of taking private accountability and discovering which means in neighborhood.

In different phrases, there might by no means be a dangerous time to placed on an “Into the Woods” revival. However can “now more than ever” apply? Because the Act 2-heralding tune says, “There are big, tall, terrible giants in the sky…” To that, we will say: We all know, Steve — we’ve been studying the information — and thanks.

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