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

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In “Into the Woods,” the audience laughs at the gluttony of the Little Red Ridinghood character, especially in the earliest, most deliberately cartoony parts of the production. But in a sense, the crowd is getting off on gorging, as well, since this is the ultimate having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too show. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine weren’t too proud to cook up their 1987 classic with copious amounts of Mad magazine-style spoofery — or Looney Tunes-level laughs, even — and yet you can feel like those seemingly empty calories are justified, knowing you’ll be gulping back salty tears by the end. “Into the Woods” is as overstuffed with characters and ideas as any musical ever has been, but if everyone does their job right, you leave feeling like you’ve just been fed a perfectly balanced meal, and not a morsel more.

A national tour of last year’s much-loved Broadway revival has just touched down at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre for its final stop, and boy, is everyone doing their job right. How often, as a non-New Yorker, do you get to tell people that one of the half-dozen greatest American musicals has landed locally in a version that’s as world-class and close to flawless as any modern version is ever likely to get? If this were truly a fairy tale, “Into the Woods” would extend at the Music Center for years, and L.A. Sondheim fans could stop in every six months or so for a spiritual booster shot against the pandemic of giants in the land. But as the show makes it its mission to remind, endings are fleeting, not ever-after, so four weeks is all anyone has got to enjoy an incarnation so happy it’s like the living embodiment of the end of Act 1.

As the recent run of “Sunday in the Park With George” at the Pasadena Playhouse reminded Angelenos, Sondheim has a thing for shows in which the second act is very different from the first, with “Into the Woods” as the more universally famous example. The conceit — no longer as novel as it was in 1987, though just as clever in execution — is that the world of fantasy bedtime tales is really an intersectional novel rather than a series of short stories, with four main storylines and about as many diversionary branches. At the heart of the ensemble piece is a childless couple (played by IRL marrieds Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus) all too desperate to follow the directions of a proudly wicked witch (Montego Glover) about how to undo a fertility curse.

These instructions amount to grand-theft-Grimm, as the baby coveters go on an epic journey and find that everyone they need to steal from or swindle is on a woodsy journey of their own and not eager to give up their precious. There’s Cinderella, with her special slipper (Diane Phelan); Rapunzel, aka sister-golden-hair surprise (Alysia Velez); Jack, of “…and the beanstalk” fame (Cole Thompson), 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 red coat even more than the Wolf (Gavin Creel) craves her pasty flesh. Tertiary players include a narrator (David Patrick Kelly), who… well, let’s just say that if you ever thought narration in a play was expendable, so does the fourth-wall-breaking cast here, literally; and a sibling pair of princes (Creel, again, and Jason Forbach) whose shared vanity in their show-stopper, “Agony,” probably set the standard for latter-day Disney schmuck-hunk villains like Gaston and Prince Hans.

Will they all live (or die) unhappily ever after? Does a giant shmush in the woods? The severity of their fates is fairly unpredictable; even if you’ve seen the show before, the sudden death of one of the most sympathetic characters still has the power to draw a gasp. In Act 2, “Into the Woods” has a body count almost like a slasher movie, which can be a little startling to anyone who got too lulled by the relatively more benign shenanigans of Act 1, which only has happy-go-lucky stuff like people getting their eyes pecked out or heels sawed off. The legend (which is true, according to Lapine!) is that during the show’s very first run in the ‘80s, a busload’s worth of theatergoers thought the whole thing was over at intermission and headed across the parking lot to go home when they were coaxed back into the theater. At the Ahmanson, the show still have that effect on newbies, as one first-timer could be heard in the lobby telling friends there could not possibly be anything left to settle in a final hour.

There is, and part of that is finally, once and for all, wiping the taste of the 2014 Disney movie adaptation out of everyone’s minds. It’s not that Rob Marshall’s adaptation was a total disaster (the lingering general consensus among “Into the Woods” fans mostly amounts to: “Not nearly as bad as I expected”), but it was a filmic treatment of a tragicomedy that seemed to be about equally afraid of both slapstick and sorrow, favoring an inoffensive, mushy middle. What a relief it is, then, for anyone who might not have seen a stage version since then, to re-experience all the chortle-out-loud moments that got undercut for the purpose of screen realism. (It’s worth pointing out that the show’s polarized moods are not so schematically split up that the authors don’t throw in plenty of laugh lines even after things get deeply sad and dark.) How much greater, on top of that, when two of the theater’s great conjoined show-closers — “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” — arrive a little before 11 and, on cue, you find yourself checking your tear ducts, not your watch.

This “Into the Woods” brilliantly hits every hilarious or somber note it needs to, thanks to the brisk, smart direction of Lear deBessonet, resisting any temptation to expand on the minimalistic but perfect staging she instigated with as a New York City Center Encores! quickie run.It’s also due toan ensemble cast of anyone’s dreams, with arguably the four most crucial parts — the baker and his wife, the witch and the dual part of the wolf/prince — filled by actors indelibly repeating the roles they played on Broadway and, somehow, not at all visibly exhausted at the close of a six-month tour.

The question of who the real “star” is in an ensemble as democratic as a “Woods” production often gets decided by stunt casting, by default. Lapine has said that the witch is the real hero of the show, being the most reliable truth-teller. (“You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice… I’m just right,” goes her famous cut-down line.) That certainly proves true when it’s Meryl Streep put into the role, for the movie — or, when a 2002 revival originated at the Ahmanson before going on to Broadway, it was Vanessa Williams in the part. Bernadette Peters in the original run? You couldn’t call it a competition. But for the purpose of evening things out, it’s nice having less of a marquee name casting spells, with Glover ably making the transitions from a nearly Disney-animated crone to glamorous diva to, finally, a kind of rageaholic sage. That she has a little Eartha Kitt in her does not hurt at all, when she’s tasked with some of the show’s sexier or angrier asides.

The one actor who gets to be more of a showboat than the witch is whoever’s handed the wolf ears, and subsequently the prince’s crown — in this case, Creel, who is so impossibly entertaining in his lupine phase that it’s almost the wolf’s early demise that hits hardest, even if you’re clued in enough to know that the actor will hardly be sitting out the remainder of the show. Without his invoking any one inspiration, Creel’s wolf is the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a top-flank Elvis routine embedded in a Sondheim show. Enjoy that combination of electricity and sophisticated sophistry while it lasts. As Ridinghood, meanwhile, Geraghty nearly matches Creel, laugh for laugh, in a single role. Having the damsel-in-distress actually be a knife-wielding juvenile delinquent runs the risk of coming off as a one-joke conceit, now as in 1987, but Geraghty does wonders not just keeping the laughter coming but getting a little more visibly human with the sexual-awakening number “I Know Things Now.” (Thanks goodness that, in the theater, we can have that song sung by an adult again, without the icky implications that came with casting younger for the film.)

Kennedy Kanagawa and Cole Thompson in ‘Into the Woods’ at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 30, 2023. Photo by: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman

There’s also a key role that can go unmentioned among the most critical ones just because sometimes it’s fulfilled by an actor but more often by an inanimate prop. That would be Milky White, the saddest sack in the world’s long history of cows, caught up in a tug of war between his beloved keeper Jack and the mercenary voyagers who see her as a stepping stone to a baby. In 2002’s L.A./Broadway productions, Chad Kimball made a name for himself as the cow, bravely taking on a role sometimes fulfilled by paper mache. This Milky represents the ideal  compromise between human and prop, envisioned as an accordion-like skeletal figure brought to life, puppeteer-style, by Kennedy Kanagawa (another of the dozen Broadway cast holdovers). Together, the bony cow and Kanagawa have their own pathetic starpower. With the Ahmanson website advertising that Milky White will be available for photo ops at a wine reception on July 6, honestly, that might be all the meet-and-greet anyone needs this year.

But the “leading” roles, if they can really be said to exist in “Into the Woods,” seem to have shifted back to the baker and his wife, with Sara Bareilles having taken on the latter for Broadway last year and husband-and-wife Arcelus and Block having taken them over for the close of that run and into this tour. The baker role is, if not a thankless task, a taxing one, inasmuch as he drives so much of the action by sheer ineffectualness, albeit with the constant threat of graduating to real virility or accomplishment. Arcelus almost projects too much can-do spirit to be quite right playing such a timid soul, but he manages the journey from loser to possible leader well, and is just the stand-in the men in the audience will need as their minds wander to whether they’ve been well-served or failed by father figures, or as dads themselves.

But if this skews close to becoming anybody’s showcase at all, in particular, it comes closest to being Block’s. She’s so powerful in her initial obsession with becoming a mother, then her unexpected hunger to be a lover, that you tend to forget that her character behaves with as much careless, laughable, disturbing venality as any of the others. Isn’t the baker’s wife the situational ethicist who sings, “The ends justify the beans” (the closest thing to a groaner in the Sondheim songbook)? Doesn’t she cheat? Didn’t she drag poor Milky White across the hefty length of the Ahmanson stage? All that, and yet Block gets some of the biggest physical-comedy laughs of the show when she gets practically orgasmic just encountering a prince in the woods… just before prompting a heartbreaking wistfulness with her philosophical solo ballad, “Moments in the Woods.” It’s a hell of a show, to be able to recover right after subjecting as brilliant and sympathetic an actor as Block to one of the musical’s most crushing moments.

Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus in ‘Into the Woods’ at the Ahmanson Theatre, playing through July 30, 2023. Photo by: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman

Block gets one of the most famous verses, recalibrating her sense of self in 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 kids might say, about all the innuendo in this score, IYKYK.) Sondheim’s lyrics and Lapine’s book are full of dozens, maybe hundreds, more aphorisms where that one came from, of course. For a show that recalls the work of animator Tex Avery or Mad magazine satirist Frank Jacobs, “Into the Woods” is also denser with haunting truths than just about anything this side of Shakespeare’s funnier tragedies. There’s not much about the most core elements of human existence that doesn’t find a place in this initially frothy piece: greed, lust and the eternal casting of blame; the faint hope of breaking the chains of generational sin; the elusive tasks of taking personal responsibility and finding meaning in community; forgiveness.

In other words, there could never be a bad time to put on an “Into the Woods” revival. But can “now more than ever” apply? As the Act 2-heralding song says, “There are big, tall, terrible giants in the sky…” To that, we can say: We know, Steve — we’ve been reading the news — and thank you.

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