The following review is based on the April 9th evening performance when understudy Mary Kate Moore played the role of the Witch in lieu of Stephanie Umoh.
When “Into the Woods” debuted in 1986, it was immediately apparent that the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine collaboration yielded a parable with a treasure trove of sage advice and truisms to live by. Lapine’s script, structured as it is with allegories that unveil themselves through wistful characters, combined with Sondheim’s fine-tuned genius, provide us the tools to look inwardly as soon as our vicarious journey concludes.
This self-reflective musical has been the beneficiary of many iterations, but perhaps none more genuine than the Fiasco Theater production, which is scheduled to run through May 14th at the Ahmanson Theatre. Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, choreographed by Lisa Shriver, and musically supervised and directed by Matt Castle and Evan Rees, respectively, this version succeeds by humanizing a fictional tale and its players thought to be too otherworldly for us to relate to. And, it does so by asking us to ruminate about what it really means to be moral, forgiving, and a champion of family values.
The production features a cast of 11, one of whom is Rees at a mobile piano, smack dab in the middle of a stage that is fitted with piano cast iron plates at each corner and piano keys around the outer proscenium (the depths of the stage support and comprise a labyrinthine interconnectedness of rope that is supposed to either symbolize piano strings, thickets of wood, or both). Rees, who is very conspicuous, is somehow removed yet very much a part of the story, as he even appears in a few acting cameos. With reverent sincerity, he interprets Sondheim’s music with a delicateness that shines through as both an homage and its own distinctive entity.
The versatile Rees is joined by cast mates who magically change wardrobes and personae in full view, as they similarly do it all, from playing instruments, to puppeteering folded-paper birds, and vocalizing the crying sounds of a baby. In all, every detail contributes to the narrative quest of fulfillment to be “discovered” in the woods during Acts I and II, but it is the latter act that manifests the consequences of self-interest disguised as virtue. The lone exception is perhaps the Baker and his wife’s mission to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by procuring a “cow as white as milk, cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and slipper as pure as gold.”
The Baker, played by the very likable Evan Harrington, is at times misguided, but absolved by his honest intentions. Despite not having as many comedic moments as his peers, Harrington’s authentic portrayal is endearing enough that the Baker is indisputably the heart of the production. Harrington, who also plays the guitar, has a voice that manages to be both soft and booming, which is particularly effective during “It Takes Two,” when he realizes he needs his wife’s help to complete the scavenger-hunt objective, and “No More,” when he makes the decision to not run away from guilt like his father, the Mysterious Man, did.
Portrayed by Fred Rose, the Mysterious Man appears in and out of the proceedings almost like an apparition, doling out riddles to his unwitting son, and forever haunted by his decision to steal the Witch’s magic beans. Rose, though, shines just as much if not more so as an on-stage musician, playing the cello, flute, and hammering the bass drum as the female Giant approaches.
The Baker’s Wife is a role expertly carried out by Eleasha Gamble, who balances her character’s loyalty to her husband with her inner desire to be more than just a Baker’s wife. This is specifically revealed when the wife appears almost envious when gossiping with Cinderella about her royal prince. Of course, Cinderella’s Prince enjoys a rendezvous with the Baker’s Wife, if only for a moment (“Any Moment” and “Moments in the Woods”), but it is one that alerts us to the fact that fantasy might be preferable to the repercussions of reality.
Cinderella, too, is another character who comes to terms with the notion that it’s better to live moderately with a life somewhere in-between destitution and luxury. Laurie Veldheer infuses her Cinderella with an astute knowingness, quickly jettisoning any semblance of naiveté, as someone who is proud to be with a prince, but also cognizant to not be blinded by her newly opulent surroundings. As such, the sweetly sung “On the Steps of the Palace” ultimately takes a bitter turn when she justifiably refuses to remain with her unfaithful prince.
Cinderella’s Prince, not to mention the Wolf, and vain stepsister Lucinda are all meticulously – and with equal cogency – inhabited by Anthony Chatmon II. Chatmon II’s charisma is off the charts, as everything he does, whether it be growling as he holds a wolf bust to Red Ridinghood, sashaying flamboyantly with pink hat in tow, or being a supercilious heartthrob are executed so well that one can’t help but cheer. An example of this is his delivery of the line (when questioned by Cinderella about his infidelity), “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” which elicits an uproarious applause because of how marvelously impudent it is. Another moment that stands out is when he, as the Prince, describes trying to fit the slippers on Lucinda, prompting him to do a literal about-face, transforming into the stepsister he was just describing mid-stage.
Chatmon II’s counterpart in the production is Darick Pead (Rapunzel’s Prince, Milky White, and Florinda). Pead is uncannily talented at using his facial expressions and loud voice to convey comic disappointment, anger, and sadness as the cow that is bought and sold seemingly a million times. His heart-attack scene as Milky White receives a well-earned applause, as do his interactions with Chatmon II. Their version of “Agony” (including the reprise) is Grade-A theatre that begins with the two handing out their galloping stick horses to front-row attendees before flailing and opening their arms to the audience in the most humorous manner possible. Belying the “Ever After” ending of Act I, the princes are also enslaved by their wants, unable to be happy, though also unwilling to make the sacrifices to see any contentment to fruition.
On the subtler end of the sinful spectrum is Little Red Ridinghood, who appears to be a personable girl who just wants to visit her grandma, but is at her core an over-confident child with a questionable disposition — knife-wielding tendencies included. Lisa Helmi Johanson, who portrays both Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel, never flags in her energy, giving maximum effort, and committing wholeheartedly in everything she does, even if it means screaming like a toddler when her cape is being pulled away by the Baker.
As Jack and Jack’s Mother, Patrick Mulryan (also the Steward) and Bonne Kramer (also Cinderella’s Stepmother) furthermore play characters who become victims of their desires – the first pilfers gold items from the sky-sheltered giants to buy his cow back as well as impress Little Red Ridinghood; and the second one instigates the butterfly effect that brings the magic beans into Jack’s possession by insisting that he sell his cow for money. In a twist of cruel irony, Jack’s Mother is struck down and killed by the Steward who considers his own self-interest during the group’s harrowing encounter with the Giant (who is cleverly delineated with light and shadow and whose voice echoes from the back of the theatre).
It’s certainly difficult to assign blame to a boy that is played with exceptional purity by Mulryan, or even a headstrong mother in Kramer who is just trying to courageously stand up for her son, but it isn’t the singular moments of their righteousness that betray them, but rather the characters’ cumulative actions (as innocuous as they might seem). Still, casting culpability is the easy thing to do because it is motivated by the ego’s need to satiate itself in a sanctimonious show of honor.
The Witch, notwithstanding her wicked nature and unruly temperament, is revealed to be the most objective observer in the musical when she remarks on the discrepancy between nice and good, and why she is neither nice nor good, but right. Weirdly, her overprotective instincts about her daughter are, in hindsight, proven to be justified when Rapunzel is stomped dead by the Giant, which segues into the poignant “Witch’s Lament.”
Suffice it to say, Mary Kate Moore delivers an astounding performance as the Witch, giving her character a wide-ranging palette that includes stark and understated colors – from a conniving fireball to a concerned guardian. Moreover, Moore is spellbinding during “Last Midnight,” when she breathes truth-dipped fire arrows at the other personalities, willing to take the frivolous blame if it means turning Jack in, and no longer squandering time to save the kingdom from Giant peril. It is provocative instances like this that beckon us to ask which character really represents the greater good?
Overall, like any piece of art that imparts wisdom upon the adults and children who will listen about living selflessly and without expectations, the Fiasco Theater Production of “Into the Woods” dispenses a satisfying closure. It craftily reconnects the torn threads of its characters into a tapestry of forgiveness and family, as those who have been spared by the Giant are reminded to fight the temptation of retribution and bind together because “No One is Alone.” Needless to say, sometimes the greatest wish and gratification one can have is the support of friends and family, who are loving and loyal through the good and the bad.
For more information about the Fiasco Theater’s production of “Into the Woods” at the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit http://bit.ly/2p0E9tX