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Sunday, December 7, 2014

INTO THE WOODS at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Centuries old fairy tales like Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood have been told and retold so many times that it's hard to recreate them and make them feel new again.  One way would be to take familiar characters and give them a new task to accomplish, another way would be to take a look at what happens after the ''happily ever after." James Lapine's book for Into the Woods attempts to do both.

     The witch in Into the Woods, played with deliciously evil pluck by Miriam A. Laube, put a curse on The Baker's family before he was born and now his wife is destined to be barren unless they can collect four specific items for The Witch in three days time.  Desperate for a baby, The Baker (Jeff Skowron) and his wife (Rachael Warren) set out into the woods to retrieve a milky white cow, a red hood, a lock of yellow hair and a golden slipper.  It's easy to see where this is going and all of the vivid characters from each fairy tale are introduced one by one as as Stephen Sondheim's nimble, clever songs bounce along charmingly to the climax of the first act, which feels like the end of the story,  So much so, that the second act, darker in tone, is a bit harder to get through.  However the cast, to their credit, is engaging and entertaining throughout.
    The staging of this production is unique in that there isn't a traditional set, the orchestra is onstage in chairs with sheet music before them and the actors play out the scenes in front of them with the aid of only a few moving set pieces gliding across the stage and creative lighting.  The staging is so organic that the actors are chatting and mulling about casually as if they just wandered on stage and found themselves in a dress rehearsal.  In the same way that it happens with a great story teller though, before you realize it you're imagining the world they've created as if you've been there before.
    Each character has their own through line to get to their happy ever after and you can empathize with each on their journey to achieve it.  There is a lot of heart and humor in the lyrics and dialog and the performers commendably wring out every drop.  The singing is great throughout, the standouts being the gorgeously operatic Rapunzel (Royer Bockus) and Laube in the showy role of The Witch (originated on stage by Bernadette Peters).  Other standouts in the cast were dim but sweet Jack (Miles Fletcher) of beanstalk fame and Kjerstine Rose Anderson's tom-boyish firecracker Little Red Riding Hood steals every scene she's in.
    This being my first time seeing the show in its entirety, I couldn't help but think about how the film adaptation, due to hit theaters in a few weeks, will measure up. Director Amanda Dehnert's vibrant stage production, with its stripped down, naturalistic approach, reminded me of how the best stories take place most vividly in your imagination.
   

Into the Woods is running at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts until December 21.

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