As they say, this is not your grandfather’s Into The Woods! Nor even your father’s. The Ahmanson Theatre has produced this musical twice before, once in the dark ages of the ’80s, and again in 2002, when I finally saw this popular show. And I hated it then!!!

Anthony Chatmon II, Darick Pead, Laurie Veldheer, and Bonne Kramer. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Anthony Chatmon II, Darick Pead, Laurie Veldheer, and Bonne Kramer. Photo by Joan Marcus, as is the big one at the top of this page.

But this is a whole new crazy production now, brought to us by Fiasco Theater, which is an ensemble theatre company created by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA acting program, which I’m impressed with, especially because I’ve had glancing relationships with both Brown and Trinity Rep. (When I was still a teen-ager, I actually left my beloved Los Angeles, where I was a dance major at UCLA, and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, because my boyfriend at the time was a student at Brown. So, I was at that school and in the area a lot. And then an old pal from my first college theatre department wound-up running Trinity Square Reporatory, so I helped paint sets whenever I could, and saw all the shows there for years. I still love that whole city!)

And Fiasco made Into The Woods a wild new-fangled show. This schticky production actually makes the now-iconic musical more interesting. You can’t look away for even one second or you’ll miss some clever visual.

I don’t remember why I didn’t like it the first time I saw it; I should have loved it because Vanessa Williams starred, and I always support former Miss Americas. (Stop laughing–I’m not kidding.) But I think I’m just not a Sondheim fan. His music is perhaps a bit too scattered for me. And each ditty seems to go on and on. But I wound-up loving this show’s song Children Will Listen when I saw Meryl Streep sing it in the movie a few years ago. [Note: It’s not listed in the program at the Ahmanson, but I know I heard it. I did a lot of research, but couldn’t find that it really has a different title. So, perhaps it’s listed as Witch’s Lament. Wow—aren’t you glad to have just received this crucial information?]

I think this version of the musical veers from the original narrative a little bit, although I am far from being an Into The Woods expert. But I feel like I remember a narrator, which this one doesn’t have, and I don’t remember any of the songs being performed as sort-of a rap. And I certainly don’t remember it being this entertaining!

 Photo by Joan Marcus.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

In case you’re not familiar with the crazy story…look it up yourselves! Why do I have to do all the work for you?! But really, it’s a melange of fairy tales, and, if you haven’t seen the film or show before, you may be confused for a while. (That’s actually why I stopped watching the television show Once Upon a Time—I don’t like my fairy tale characters meeting each other.)

In this production, there are ten actor/singers who stay visible pretty much the whole time, and one on-stage piano player, Evan Rees, who works his fingers to the bone! Seriously, I don’t think he stopped playing for even one second! (Okay, he did; for literally a few seconds, to play a quick visual character.) The auxiliary instruments, (cello, trumpet, bassoon, percussion, and I think I saw a guitar in there, too,) are all played by the actors. (Really, what did these casting calls look like? “We’re seeking an grown-up actress who looks like a kid, is funny, can sing, and has the ability to quickly learn to play the trumpet.” How many people showed-up for that one?!) (The one who does all that here is Lisa Helmi Johanson, by the way.)

And that’s just one example of this uber-talented cast. They are all blessed with fabulous voices, and comedy chops, to boot. I’m always amazed that there are so many talented people in this world, such as these singers, who are not famous, yet idiots like the Kardashians and the Housewives are! How screwy is that?!

Anthony Chatmon II and Lisa Helmi Johanson.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Anthony Chatmon II and Lisa Helmi Johanson. I adore her boots!  Photo by Joan Marcus.

If I have to choose a favorite amongst the cast, (but who said that I do?,) it would be Anthony Chatmon II, who played, among many other characters, Cinderella’s Prince. (We all know that character’s name is really Prince Charming, but, probably because this is a skewed tale, they don’t use it in this show.) I’d love to hear him sing in other styles sometime, because I have a feeling that he can really wail. He and Darick Pead, (as Rapunzel’s Prince,) sing my two favorite numbers, which are the same song, Agony, but with different, clever lyrics. And attitudes. The one in Act II, about fairy tale princesses other than their own, is priceless.

And I have to say, with shows like this one, (and actually, all Sondheim musicals,) lyrics are of paramount importance, so I love that we can understand each and every word this cast sings.

The set looks simple, as do the mostly ecru costumes, the only real color of which is little Red Riding Hood’s—guess what?–red riding hood, of course!!! Duh. (Perhaps I should have eaten before I started writing this review. My brain appears to be a tad punchy right now.) That color scheme reminded me too much of Schindler’s List, which was shot in black and white except for one little girl’s red coat.

(L to R) Eleasha Gamble, Laurie Veldheer, and Anthony Chatmon II. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(L to R) Eleasha Gamble, Laurie Veldheer, and Anthony Chatmon II. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But I do admire the thought that went into it by costume designer Whitney Locher, and the deceptively complicated set design, too, which is by Derek McLane. I loved the assorted chandeliers that hover mysteriously over the proceedings, (though apropos of nothing,) and even the sides of the stage frame are interesting. (I could never be in this show, though, because the actors all keep walking under a ladder! That would have let me out on Day 1 of rehearsal. Oh, and also the fact that I can’t sing or play an instrument. Unless you count Put Put Put Goes the Flashy Speedboat with one hand on piano. Then I’m your gal.)

I have only two small complaints, and they’re with the script, not this production. First, it could have been a heck of a lot shorter! You always want to leave them wanting more, as opposed to looking at their watches, praying it will be over soon, so they can get on with their lives. (My friend Lucia, who’s even a young-ish hip chick, commented as we left that she would have rathered seen it in a matinee, so that she wouldn’t be getting home at midnight!)

The actors tell you up-front to please not leave after the first act, because that curtain could really be mistaken as the ending. And a happy one at that. (There is no physical curtain, but I’m sure you know what I mean.) But I noticed that several people did leave, I’m sure due to the late hour. And just as I was thinking that the second act was perhaps a bit more fun than the first, it got very plodding and repetitive. And went on and on and on, about the same things! And then characters started getting killed off, so maybe you should leave at halftime. And Act I is really a complete show unto itself.

Secondly, what is up with all those deaths??? This is supposed to be a musical comedy, not a musical leave-em-bummed-out! I try to not be bothered by senseless on-stage killings if the depressing parts of a show teach us some wonderful life lesson, but these deaths really do not serve that purpose. (Unless it’s that, if you cheat on your husband for a one night stand, it’s curtains for you. And again, not of the physical variety.) [Note: I do understand that some people think that there’s some kind of lesson at the end of this show, but I feel that they’re just trying to cheer themselves up.] Since the scenario of Into The Woods is basically a fractured fairy tale to begin with, why can’t someone just wave a magic wand to bring everyone back to life, and let it end happily??? What happened in Sondheim’s childhood to make him want to foist such sadness on his audience?! (If I had more time, I’d delve into it for him, but a healer recently told me that I have to take off my “backpack of other people’s problems,” so I guess Stephen’s on his own for now. Yeah—I’m sure he’s really busted up about that.)

Lisa Helmi Johanson and Stephanie Umoh.  Can you guess which characters they're playing here?   Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lisa Helmi Johanson and Stephanie Umoh. Can you guess which characters they’re playing here? And there’s that ladder I told you about! Photo by Joan Marcus.

Whew. Okay. Let me calm down for a second. And tell you how very appreciative the opening night audience was, with genuine hearty laughter all night long, none more than from the guy next to us. I had to look to see if he was Stephen Sondheim himself, because I’ve never heard anyone enjoy a show as much as this, so I assumed he had to be the author, (who is really James Lapine, by the way; Sondheim wrote the songs.) (To clarify, I put no judgement on that rabid appreciation—I always found myself really yukking it up when I watched my own TV show back in the day. Mr. X used to ask, “Enjoying yourself, Kah?” And as a matter of fact, I was!)

One final note: You might want to see Into The Woods tomorrow afternoon, April 8, 2017, because it will be a special “Family Day” at the Ahmanson. It will feature some specially-priced matinee tickets, and there will be several pre-show activities, such as crafts, face painting, a photo booth, cookie decorating, and lemonade. (They had me at “cookie.”) Check their website below for details.

[P.S. Yes, to answer your unspoken question, I do realize that this is a really different kind of review. Maybe the tenor of the production inspired me this time. Yeah, that’s it.]

Into The Woods running through May 14, 2017
Ahmanson Theatre  135 N. Grand Avenue  213-972-4400

I really want to thank Pat Marotta for filling-in so admirably on the proofreading front this week, while Carol was on vacation. (Or was she?!) Without her, you guys would have had a lot of gibberish to read! (Or should I say—a lot more gibberish to read!)


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