Theater Review: Into the Woods
Les Spindle

Into the Woods
Plummer Auditorium, 210 E.Chapman Ave., Fullerton
Through May 18,
* * *

Stephen Sondheim fans who are eagerly awaiting Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of the classic Broadway musical Into the Woods, opening this Christmas, can get an early fairy-tale fix (no euphemism intended) in an ambitious Orange County rendition of the stage hit. 3-D Theatricals offers a lavish revisit to the beloved show, which premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego in 1986, and had its Tony-winning Broadway bow in 1987. Director T.J. Dawson elicits reasonably successful but imperfect results with Into the Woods, a musical that brilliantly evokes the world of Grimm’s fairy tales, while exploring timelessly heartrending themes of family, life’s joys and sorrows and mortality.

The production is graced with a solid cast of actor-singers, bringing out much of the poignancy, literacy, humor and wit of Sondheim’s music and lyrics and librettist James Lapine’s sublime text. However, a complex production design and thorny acoustical problems sometimes obscure the storytelling. The heavily plotted story occasionally loses clarity amid overly elaborate scene changes while lyrics and dialogue don’t always project well in the auditorium. If there was ever a songwriter-lyricist whose glorious lyrics were meant to be heard, Sondheim is the man. The same goes for Lapine’s terrific text. Those who know the score and book well will fare better in relating to this show than will novices. While Tom Buderwitz’ gorgeous set design captures the magical ambience of the story, it sometimes evokes a dizzying sense of perpetual motion, and the frequent changes periodically result in awkward delays in the transitions to new scenes. Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting effects and the costumes credited to California Music Theatre are ravishing.

Thankfully, musical director-conductor Julie Lamoureux and her orchestra bring out the splendor of the Sondheim score. The efforts of a seasoned ensemble cast are on target, preserving the musical richness, nuanced characterizations and multi-layered storytelling. The story brings together many familiar characters from the Grimm stories (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack [and his beanstock], Little Red Ridinghood, Sleeping Beauty, and more). It melds elements of these myriad plots into a story about people who are all searching for something and who meet in the woods.  The overlapping plot threads brilliantly dovetail the moral lessons of the original stories into a compelling overall theme. The character interactions create profound changes—for better or worse—in each of their lives. The play explores the ways our lives affect others, the importance of family, and the complexity of emotions and life choices that each of us face.

Among standouts in the cast are Jeff Skowron as The Baker, who radiates charm and good humor, Viva Carr as the valiant Baker’s Wife, who embarks on a journey to break a spell cast by The Witch (golden-voiced Bets Malone in a delightful change-of-pace role), Jeanette Dawson’s radiant Cinderella, Julie Morgentaler as the spunky and hilarious Little Red Ridinghood, and Jordan Lamoureux as the doltish but delightful Jack.

Though less than perfect, this latest excursion into Sondheim and Lapine’s woods yields abundant delights. Now onwards, to Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, and Johnny Depp taking the journey come December.

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