Review: Lively, Wonder-Filled "Woods"

April 16, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

A captivating, energetic, entertaining new production of the discursive musical is on stage now in Los Angeles. Plus, recalling my early theater-going days

The second Broadway musical I attended – and the one that fueled my love for them – was Gypsy in 1961. This wasn’t in New York, but in Los Angeles at the Biltmore Theater downtown.

I think of it as a Broadway musical because in those days, after a New York run of about a year, the original stars would take the same production on the road for another year or so. That’s how I, a teenager from Los Angeles who hadn’t been further east than Las Vegas, got to see Ethel Merman in Gypsy.

The Fiasco Theater's "Into the Woods"

It was thrilling to watch this musical theater legend make her entrance shouting from the back of the house, march purposefully down the aisle, take her place on stage, and proceed for the next two and one half hours to show us how the pros on Broadway do it. The theatricality of it all was all consuming. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Over the next decade in Los Angeles I saw Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Robert Weede, Mimi Benzell, Molly Picon and Tommy Rall in Milk and Honey, Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival, Sid Caesar in Little Me, Inga Swensen and Leslie Anne Warren in 110 in the Shade, Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly, Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha, Angela Lansbury in Mame, a revival of Kismet with Alfred Drake, and so many others. These were all signature roles for these great performers. For some they were career-making turns.

In those days, for the most part, these stars and their producers valued audiences across the country enough to want to present the same artistry in the regions as in New York. We weren’t second-class cities. They made us feel as if we were just as important as the folks who bought tickets to the Imperial or St. James.

Ethel Merman in "Gypsy," 1959

Contrast this with touring musicals today. It’s rare to see the original players or the same quality production, even here in Los Angeles, the nation’s second city with some 18 million in the market and, not incidentally, home to Hollywood’s entertainment industry.

The Biltmore Theater is long gone. It was a glorious place, built in 1924, exemplifying the same intimate size, grand décor, live acoustical presence and feel of a traditional Broadway playhouse. The Music Center’s two modern theaters came along in the 1960s. They are larger, sleek, impersonal.

Today, touring companies normally stop at The Music Center or at the Old School but (at 2,700 seats) cavernous Pantages Theater in Hollywood. When the orchestra strikes up the overture, your spine doesn’t tingle. The hair on your arms doesn’t raise up. The brass doesn’t course through your body like electricity, as it does in the theaters built in the early part of the last century and still operating on Broadway.

"The theatricality of it all was all consuming. I remember it as if it were yesterday."

I can’t remember the last time any Broadway musical brought it’s original cast to Southern California. Have you ever heard of Randy Harrison or Andrea Goss? They replaced Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams in Cabaret when it was here a few years back. What about Elizabeth Stanley and Laura Michelle Kelley? The first took over for Kelli O’Hara in The Bridges of Madison County, the second for her in The King and I. Instead of Jessie Mueller, who received rave reviews in Beautiful on Broadway, we got her sister Abby.

What I mostly recall is how disappointing most of them were compared to what I see in New York every year, or what I used to see here a generation or more ago. To be fair, sometimes a touring production with a cast of unknowns does indeed hit the mark. “Fun Home” at The Ahmanson showed what a strong touring can wow the audience. “An American Paris” was a knock out at The Pantages, even though its star, Robert Fairchild, elected not to come to Los Angeles. He was appearing in the London production.

What cast, I wonder, can we expect when Hamilton arrives here in August, nearly two years after opening in New York? At $650 per ticket, we would like to see Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m not holding my breath.

Anthony Chatmon II, Laurie Veldheer, "Into the Woods"

I mentioned that Gypsy was the second Broadway musical I had seen. It was also the second Broadway show, after West Side Story, for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Both shows were chock full of hit songs with crowd pleasing melodies and equally indelible words that were clever and smart, like:

When you’re a jet, you’re a jet all the way

From your first cigarette to your last dying day

And

Wherever I go, I know she goes

Wherever I go, I know he goes

No fits, no fights, no feuds, no egos.

Amigos.

Together!

Had he written nothing else, had he gone into seclusion for these past 50 years, Sondheim – and these two plays – would still exist comfortably in the pantheon of Broadway musicals.

Of course, Gypsy and West Side Story, as brilliant as they are, offered just a glimpse of the half century’s worth of terrific, clever musicals to come – shows that would prove to be at once intellectually stimulating and wildly entertaining. Among these are the angst-filled Company, wistful A Little Night Music and darkly troubling Sweeny Todd. Also: Sunday in the Park With George, a meditation on the how artists create art and it and their role in society (on Broadway now in a stunning revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal) and Pacific Overtures, a musical about the opening of Japan to the West in 1853. (How’s that for originality!)

Cinderella and her stepsisters, "Into the Woods"

This brings us to one of Sondheim’s most popular shows, Into the Woods, currently on stage at The Ahmanson in an enchanting, infectious, highly pleasing production. This is Sondheim at his wiliest, slyest, most playful and ironic. In the catalogue of be-careful-what-you-ask-for parables, this certainly belongs near the very top the list.

In the first act, Sondheim and librettist James Lapine mash up a bunch of children’s fairy tales into a pleasurable amusement. Cinderella and her prince, Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Jack and the Giant, Rapunzel and her pony tail, the Baker and his Wife – they’re all here, singing and dancing merrily, if with a knowing wink of what’s to come. Everyone’s problems are set out in lustrous song, then handily resolved by the end of the act, so much so that you might even think the show’s over. Before the play starts, one of the players reminds the audience to stay for the second act. Whether this is intended as a joke or a sober admonition, we don’t know.

If you take it as the latter, you’ll be prepared to see the entire first half’s happy endings unravel in the second. Rapunzel goes mad. The baker’s wife dies. The Giant comes down from the beanstalk to destroy their homes. Cinderella learns her prince isn’t everything she had hoped. (But at least her nasty stepsisters get their come-uppance; birds blind them.)

"This is Sondheim at his wiliest, slyest, most playful and ironic."

It’s as if Sondheim an Lapine took this handful of cheery, familiar children’s fairy tales, washed them in Borax, put them through a ringer, and hung them out to dry on a wintery day before handing them back to us, unfolded, rough, wrinkled. You’ll have to see for yourself how all of this translates into one of the freshest, smartest , most charming musicals ever, thanks to Sondheim’s writing and some sensational acting and staging.

First presented Off-Broadway a few years ago, this production was reconceived by the collaborative Fiasco Theater as a stripped down version with ten actors – many of whom double in several roles – and an on-stage piano player who also takes on a few incidental parts. While there’s no orchestra, each member of the cast plays either an oboe, guitar, percussion, trumpet or other instrument as needed. They also sing beautifully.

Far from feeling stripped down, the show feels rich and full, thanks to the outstanding performers and their terrific musicianship. Particularly effective are an adorable Laurie Veldheer who plays both Cinderella and Granny and a commanding Stephanie Umoh as the Witch. Anthony Chatmon II is also terrific as the Wolf, particularly in his big Act One solo Hello Little Girl. The actor also plays one of the stepsisters. (Hard to believe, but, hey, it works perfectly. And it’s funny.)

Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld directed the show, drawing heavily on commedia dell’arte conventions: masks, pantomime, tricks, exaggeration, and tomfoolery. They’ve done a bang up job of honing this knockabout style into something more sophisticated and satisfying. The play lends itself to this treatment; it’s not realistic to begin with, so anything goes, and does! You go, too. If you love Sondheim, musicals, or just want to have a great evening out, you’ll be very glad you found yourself in these magical woods.

At The Ahmanson through May 14.