Thursday, March 9, 2017

"Into the Woods"

Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)

The Cast of "Into the Woods"
As the audience meander into their seats, actors in various smocks of muslin white wander about, too -- waving at arrivals, coming down to say hello, and generally chatting with themselves and whomever.  In a cross between what could be a bunch of friends putting on a show for neighbors in someone’ garage and a traveling group of buskers setting up in a large barn to entertain arriving towns folks, Fiasco Theatre reinvents a venture into a forest already much traveled by many Bay Area, Broadway, Off-Broadway, and international stages.  What more can possibly be squeezed out of what happens “happily ever after” in the Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), multi-Tony-winning (1988 and 2002) Into the Woods?  The reimagined, bare-bones, fully tongue-in-cheek approach that Fiasco Theatre created Off-Broadway in 2015 and now is touring across the continent (here in San Francisco thanks to SHN), answers that question with a resounding, “Into the woods, each time you go, there’s more to learn of what you know.”

The central, upright piano on stage becomes the metaphor of a dark and looming woods in Derek McLane’s massive and looming set design.  The piano’s strings fill the back wall with several hundred tall strands of parallel, slanted ropes, as the gigantic side walls consist of grand piano tops that form massive trunks of tree-like structure and as a piano keyboard frames the entire stage.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting creates incredibly stunning colors, shadows, and forms against and among the roped back wall that establish playful, wonder-filled, and scary moods all.  Scattered nooks and crannies become the watching and resting abodes of the always-on-stage actors; and when they retreat from center stage, each plays a variety of homespun (bucket, box, triangle) and conventional (cello, trumpet, drum, guitar) instruments to accompany the pianist and music director, Evan Rees.  Whitney Locher’s costumes of the mostly familiar fairy tale characters are not those seen in most children’s books.  These are creations that any of us, if we had this costumer’s brilliance and artistry, could create out of our closets and attics.  Add to all these innovative touches a sound design (Darron L. West and Charles Coes) that creates giants out of booming drums and a dead mother’s graveside voice out of four, echoing actresses; and it becomes so evident that this Into the Woods has definitely taken a different and winding path into the forest than it predecessors.  The result is total magic, much fun, and a night to be remembered and relished – no matter how many past productions one has seen.

As the story begins, a neighborhood of faces familiar to any Western Civilization child emerges as each immediately begins to wish for something out of reach.  Cinderella cannot go to the Festival while her stepsisters are all a titter about meeting the Prince there.  Jack and his mother are starving; and she sends him off to sell their wide-eyed, white cow (who happens to be his best friend).  The local witch has towered away her daughter Rapunzel and has doomed the baker and his wife childless (the only two characters not found in our growing-up, fairytale books).  Red Riding Hood heads out to Grandma’s house to meet you-know-whom along the way.  Together, the entire group sings and dances, “Into the woods to get my wish, I don’t care how, time is now.”

Much of Act One is centered on the Baker and his Wife as they look to break the next-door Witch’s curse once given to his father (who stole some beans from her yard).  The Witch’s requested remedy is simple: Find “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold” -- all of which we as audience immediately can identify but which they have no clue and must find, lose, and re-find while trapsing and arguing through the woods.  Evan Harrington and Eleasha Gamble each bring two of the production’s best voices among a sea of fine ones as proven in their animated, slightly edgy (with its double meanings), “It Takes Two,” where they decide they must work together to finally find all the required items (and thus, to produce a baby). 

Mr. Harrington’s nervous timidity and flustered indecisiveness make his macho over-protectiveness of his wife all the starker and sillier (always trying to send her back to the kitchen and out of the woods).  She in fact is the steadying force and is the one who knows the practicalities and bent-rules it takes to succeed in these woods.  “What matters is that everyone tells tiny lies ... What’s important, really, is the size,” she sings in “Maybe They’re Magic.”  Later, Ms. Gamble will sing “Moments in the Woods” with rapid, urgent excitement and then pause to cut to the core as she ponders the wonder that can be found in the woods (and in life) if we sometimes look for the “and” and not just the “or.”

Stephanie Umoh
Their nemesis is a Witch masked and cloaked as if off to a Madre Gras parade and in this production, less evil than often the practical, real-world voice with just enough cynicism to have a real bite (as heard in her rapid, rap-enhanced solo of the company’s “Prologue”).  But she is also a witch whose heart and own longings and regrets become more and more clear in each of her increasingly emotional, haunting solos:  “Stay with Me,” “Lament,” and “Last Midnight.”  Stephanie Umoh reaches deep into her soul to explain in a moving voice of clearly felt grief and remorse after losing her Rapunzel, “Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.”

What makes this production from a casting standpoint particularly unique and delicious is the double and triple casting that occurs with most of the rest of the characters of old.  Lisa Helmi Johanson is a particularly impetuous, confident, and even snotty Red Riding Hood whose little girl voice produces pitch-perfect tones and makes the required Sondheim jumps all over the musical scale with complete ease.  Later, her voice resonates slightly deeper and more grown up as she sings “I Know Things Now,” adding newfound knowledge after encountering the Wolf: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot ... And a little bit not.”  Ms. Johanson also sings in a cartoonish voice that is both funny and beautiful in its far-off yodeling as the towered (here, on a huge ladder) Rapunzel with her reams of yellow yarned hair .

Nothing short of guffawing hilarious is Red’s supposedly scary encounter with the Wolf.  Even as Anthony Chatmon II is singing in a lusty, seductive voice full of reverberating, thrilling tones, “Look at the flesh, pink and fresh ... Hello, Little Girl,” how the Wolf is portrayed in this production (but not revealed here) is like none before it and yet one more of scores of uniquely stunning decisions Co-Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have made.  

Anthony Chatmon II, Darick Pead, Laurie Veldheer & Bonnie Kramer
Mr. Chatmon (Lucinda) joins Darick Pead (Florinda) as the two, ugly stepsisters  – truly unsightly and rip-roaring funny with quickly donned wigs and dresses that roll out on a frame to cover (somewhat) their manly features.  The two actors also hop on snorting, reeling stick horses and become the story’s required two Prince Charmings (one for Cinderella, one for Rapunzel).  In doing so, they quite nearly bring the house down not once, but twice as in both acts they sing in rhymed, ego-filled harmony “Agony” about the miseries they as privileged royals have in finding their next love conquest.

Perhaps no one charms or delights the audience more the entire evening than Darick Pead each time he takes on his third role – that of Milky White, Jack’s beloved female cow.  From his first bellowing “moo” to his trip to market to be sold in which the sheepish-looking cow with the saddest eyes in the world carries ‘her’ little suitcase as she leaves home, this two-legged Milky White is destined to be the talk-of-the-town for anyone seeing this show.  And his death scene rivals in length and dramatics any of Shakespeare’s while his resurrection is one that brings full-on cheers from an adoring audience.

Patrick Mulryan
With a young boy’s wonder of innocence and naiveté that runs counter to his tall, well-formed body, Patrick Mulryan is Jack.  When he sings of “Giants in the Sky,” he especially brings a lad’s shining voice full of awe as he recounts in breathless, electric-filled succession Sondheim’s lyrics to a gathered cast all intently listening.  “There are big, tall, terrible, awesome, scary, wonderful giants in the sky,”  he warns with a boy’s excited relish.  (Mr. Mulryan also takes turns as the snide, supercilious Steward of Cinderella’s Prince Charming.)

Bonnie Kramer plays Jack’s worried, prodding Mother and also Cinderella’s bossy, cold-hearted Stepmother, bringing strong but appropriately differentiated vocals and personalities to each.  Besides being the doomed granny (who later is saved by a Baker with a knife and a penchant for Wolf skin), Lauire Vedlheer is the very teen-acting and teen-sounding Cinderella who perhaps undergoes the greatest of change and maturing after her own various ventures into the woods.  With steady clarity, she sings with the Baker their mutual realization that ever-after happy is not always the outcome of life: “Witches can be right; giants can be good; you decide what’s right; you decide what’s good.”

Rounding out the excellent cast is Fred Rose as Mysterious Man who keeps trying to help the clueless Baker find his needed items.  Together, after a world of woe has filled the woods, they sing a moving “No More” about legacies left and lost, father to son.

Probably for many in the audience, the Lapine storyline is familiar from past
viewings on stage or film.  However, its many twists and turns are always fascinating to watch unfold, and the Sondheim lyrics employed to tell its tale are so characteristically complex and unexpected, that each time Into the Woods is seen, there are new discoveries to be found.  And however happy the “Ever After” is at the end of Act One’s grand finale (preformed close to perfection by the full cast), we all soon learn that even in the woods of this highly inventive Fiasco Theatre production on the SHN Golden Gate stage, disappointed dreams, infidelity, deceit, death, and, of course, giants lurk in the shadows.

Rating; 5 E

Into the Woods continues through April 2, 2017 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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