Like the tangled vines of Jack’s beanstalk or Rapunzel’s braided hair, “Into the Woods” weaves together several fairytales in a magical, musical spell. Continuing at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 30, this Tony Award-nominated Broadway production comes with an exceptional cast and on-stage orchestra that bring to vivid life Stephen Sondheim’s redolent music and lyrics.
A collaboration between Sondheim and original director James Lapine, “Into the Woods” was first produced in the mid-1980s. This revival production directed by Lear deBessonet features a forest of tree trunks (scenic design by David Rockwell) surrounding the orchestra (conducted by John Bell) and puppetry by James Ortiz to create Jack’s milky white cow (playfully animated by Kennedy Kanagawa), which Jack trades for magical, fateful beans.
Many things happen during the characters’ “Moments in the Woods” as their paths cross in interwoven stories. Little Red Ridinghood (a hilarious Katy Geraghty) learns the hard way about dangerous wolves; the Baker and his Wife (a warm Sebastian Arcelus and stellar Stephanie J. Block) learn the limits of ethical compromise in getting their wish; and Jack (a sympathetic Cole Thompson) and his mother (Aymee Garcia) learn the price of becoming rich.
Meanwhile, Cinderella (Ellie Fishman, a lovely-voiced understudy; Krysta Rodriguez for the rest of the run) learns that maybe she should have followed her instincts about men, and two handsome, flamboyantly melodramatic princes (fabulously portrayed by Gavin Creel and Jason Forbach) learn what it takes to get and keep a wife (“Agony”).
Though most children will recognize the characters of “Into the Woods”—and its humor is sharp throughout—the harmonic dissonance of Sondheim’s music and his exploration of adult situations within fairytales make the stories less whimsical and more fraught.
The very idea of “happiness” is questioned, as Sondheim sometimes does (resonant in “So Happy”), revealing what really happens when you get what you want. In a structurally strange way, the first act ends with everyone’s wishes coming true, highlighted in its “finale” ensemble number “Ever After.” But what then is left to happen after intermission?
Our “mysterious” narrator (David Patrick Kelly) soon disappears and the characters find themselves on their own. A royal marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be, children don’t listen when told to stay in their room, having a baby requires a bigger house, two married people have a fleeting affair—and, most pivotally, a giant’s wife (cleverly represented by a disembodied voice [Felicia Curry] and two large stomping shoes), is murderously angry with Jack for killing her husband.
After the chaos that ensues from her wrath, a new family is formed and ultimately “No One is Alone,” though there may be less of them left. Poignancy pervades as everyone tries to figure out whom to blame for the devastating loss (“Your Fault”). Answers are not easy, as per the story of Rapunzel, which hews most closely to the original.
Young Rapunzel (Alysia Velez) is kept in a turret by her Witch “mother” (a commanding Montego Glover), who herself had felt "raped" when Rapunzel's father stole from her garden for his pregnant wife. Rapunzel eventually runs away with a prince (Forbach), but he is blinded and wanders away. She must bear twins alone and roam the wilderness until she finds the prince again and restores his eyesight with her tears. Of course, she blames her mother that she can still never be happy.
This and the other intertwined stories make for a lot to cover—so much so that at times “Into the Woods” can feel like a literal “The NeverEnding Story.” But throughout, Sondheim’s gorgeous music, an invested first-rate cast and rich orchestral sound create an immersive experience that is transporting, even if not transcendent. We are reminded that seemingly sweet fairytales reflect adult reality, and sometimes what happens in the woods should stay in the woods.
“Into the Woods” continues at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through July 30, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org. Run time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.