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A CurtainUpLA Review
Into the Woods

Into the Woods is not my favorite Sondheim which is rather surprising, considering I was raised on and relished fairy tales and have an interest in the power and development of myth. Jung's archetypes and Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, both sources for this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine production, are old friends of mine.

Maybe it's the chamber music form Sondheim has chosen. Although the haunting "Stay With Me", the Witch's plea to her child Rapunzel, and the two smitten Princes' delicious patter song "Agony" are vintage Sondheim, "Into the Woods", the oft-repeated theme song, begins to plod in one's brain like "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water." This is slyly intentional but, in my favorite line from the show firmly declared by Red Riding Hood after her seduction by the wolf, "Nice is different from good."

Maybe it's a matter of admiring the cleverness of the lyrics and the skill with which the tales have been woven together without becoming drawn in by the characters. It's hard to relate to an archetype playing an emotion, however well done. Though this cast was fine, only Adam Wylie as Jack succeeded in being emotionally moving.

Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and the Witch, Jack the Giantkiller, the childless Baker and His Wife go into the woods for different reasons. Each has a wish: Cinderella for her prince, Red Riding Hood for the primrose path, Rapunzel for escape from her mother the Witch's tower, the Baker and his wife for a child, Jack (at his mother's behest) for gold. In Act II they meet the dark side of their dreams, as the superficiality of their wishes surfaces like smog, and results in disaster from the sky, in the form of the Giantess Jack widowed. The play consoles, not with a happy ending, but with a course of action on which the characters can agree. Oddly enough, situations that seem dramatically clichéd on stage read beautifully as poetry.

Personal prejudice aside, there's much to applaud in this revival of the 1989 Tony-winner. It feels fuller somehow and has more resonance, perhaps because of the inevitable comparisons with horror from the sky and the essential bonding that is our only sure defense.

It's a gorgeous, enjoyable and excellent production, headed by the gorgeous, enjoyable and mellow-voiced Vanessa Williams as The Witch. Molly Ephraim's Riding Hood is a real little girl, precise, tart and anathema to cute. Douglas Schmidt makes a statement by setting his stage with three symmetrically placed volumes, neat as pillars of the real world, which open to reveal their stories, then segue into a bewitching shadow-haunted forest.

Costume Designer Susan Hilferty uses warm colors, makes bright punctuation marks of the men, trails lots of fragile floating fabrics on the fairy princesses and creates a scarlet second act gown for Vanessa Williams that could win an Oscar all by itself.

Director James Lapine, who also wrote the book, has a flair for the delicate and sharp. Nothing drags. Nothing blares. With a sure instinct for the uses of enchantment, he demonstrates how a giant beanstalk can be created out of beans of varying weights and values.

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Director: James Lapine
Cast: John McMartin (Narrator, Mysterious Man), Vanessa Williams (Witch), Laura Benanti (Cinderella), Adam Wylie (Jack), Kate Reinders (Milky-White), Stephen DeRosa (Baker), Kerry O'Malley (Baker's Wife), Pamela Myers (Cinderella's Stepmother, Granny), Tracy Nicole Chapman (Florinda), Amanda Naughton (Lucinda), Marylouise Burke (Jack's Mother), Molly Ephraim (Little Red Ridinghood), Dennis Kelly (Cinderella's Father), Gregg Edelman (Wolf, Cinderella's Prince), Christopher Sieber (Wolf, Rapunzel's Prince), Melissa Dye (Rapunzel), Trent Armand Kendall (Steward), Jennifer Malenke (Horse)
Musical Direction: Paul Gemignani.
Choreography: John Carrafa
Scenic Design: Douglas Schmidt
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Special Effectgs: Gregory Meeh
Projection Design: Elaine J. McCarthy
Illusion Design: Jim Steinmeyer
Running Time: Three hours. One 15-minute intermission
The Ahmanson Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles
February 1-March 24, 2002
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on March 3..
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