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STAGE REVIEW : Happily Ever After . . . The Sequel

Times Theater Critic

Stephen Sondheim doesn’t finish a show; he relinquishes it. As in San Diego, as on Broadway, “Into the Woods” (at the Ahmanson through March 5) plays like a brilliant notion still waiting to fall into place, a riddle unconsummated.

But if ever a witch there was, it’s Cleo Laine.

“Brilliant” applies to the central notion here. Sondheim and librettist James Lapine have kidnaped some of the Grimm Brothers’ favorite characters--Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and his cow, Rapunzel and her witch--and put them into a kind of mega fairy tale, for interesting purposes.

The aim isn’t to spoof them. Sondheim and Lapine do take a skeptical view of Prince Charming--this show has duplicate Prince Charmings (Chuck Wagner, Douglas Sills), both womanizers--and they are a little snide about Red Riding Hood (the wonderful Tracy Katz). Perhaps they are getting back at “Annie.”

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But Cinderella (Kathleen Rowe McAllen) is seen as being just as sweet and blameless as in the original. All she wants to do is to go to the “festival.” Sondheim and Lapine have no problem with that.

And why shouldn’t Jack and his Mother (Robert Duncan McNeill and Charlotte Rae) get some nutrition out of that old cow of theirs? And why shouldn’t the Baker and his Wife (characters you won’t find in Grimm--Ray Gill and Mary Gordon Murray) have a child?

These are the “three wishes” that start out the story. Innocent as they are, they can’t be achieved without a certain amount of deception, even on Cinderella’s part. This leads to the show’s central question: Does the end justify the beans?

At intermission, it seems so. But when a Sondheim character sings the words “happily ever after,” you know that something is afoot. Here, it’s the Giant’s wife, who takes very large steps.

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Laine’s Witch is mixed up in this, too, both before and after her transformation. But enough of the plot. It is thicker than the thorns around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and this creates a problem. The comings and goings are ingeniously linked; no clue is planted that doesn’t pay off later; but the show can’t be watched with the mind-set that prevails at ordinary musicals.

We have to keep constantly on our guard. Sondheim’s jumpy, motivic score and intricate lyrics--rendered with more clarity than either the San Diego or Broadway company commanded--reinforce the mood. Without being breathless, the show rarely gets a chance to breathe, and the viewer rarely gets a chance to share something with a character, as opposed to learning something from her.

This is part of the show’s strategy. Act II is supposed to be the place where the conniving stops and our friends have to face the place that they have come to--the end of the maze. This puts an enormous burden on the last half-hour of the show to come through emotionally.

Sondheim’s anthem “No One Is Alone"--for Cinderella, Jack, the Baker and Red Riding Hood, all very much alone at that point--will provide this breakthrough for some listeners, but it struck me as being an example of opportunistic inspiration, after an evening where almost every transaction has been seen as rooted in self-interest or stupidity. And what’s this business about giants being human, too, at a moment when you’re about to kill one?

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Laine’s “Children Will Listen” seems less out of left field. This is rooted in something that the show has actually been considering, which is the relationship between parents and children, always either too close (Rapunzel and the Witch) or too distant (Cinderella and her Father).

Forgive, forget and stop blaming: Life is everybody’s fault. Those are wonderful things for a musical to say, and one wishes that “Into the Woods” were as wise and deep at its conclusion as it is amusing when it’s skipping through the trees.

Let’s not scant the journey, though. There are lines in this show that make you whoop for joy--and not just Sondheim’s lines. The bad guys are always fun, particularly when they’re congratulating themselves. Chuck Wagner’s Wolf, for instance, a gourmet wolf who enjoys interviewing his meal first.

The show is full of such witty and perverse conceits (no more perverse, by the way, than in the original). And Lapine’s cast is wonderfully on the mark. One guesses that some of them--Ray Gill’s Baker, for instance--were chosen for musical reasons first, but they’re as nimble and likable as any company that has tripped through Sondheim’s forest.

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And this touring version has Laine, whose witch is so smashing (in or out of uniform) that you’re sorry to see her resign from the story in a snit, rather than resolve it. I wish, I wish . . . that “Into the Woods” were perfect. But there’s much to admire, all the same.

Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Closes March 5. Tickets $17.50-$42.50. 135 Grand Ave. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.

‘INTO THE WOODS’

A musical based on Grimm’s tales, presented by Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson. Music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim. Book James Lapine. Director Lapine. Settings Tony Straiges. Costumes Ann Hould-Ward, based on concepts by Ward and Patricia Zipprodt. Musical director Randy Booth. Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick. Sound Alan Stieb and James Brousseau. Musical staging Lar Lubovitch. Production stage manager Dan W. Langhofer. Casting Joanna Merlin. With Rex Robbins, Kathleen Rowe McAllen, Robert Duncan McNeill, Ray Gill, Mary Gordon Murray, Jo Ann Cunningham, Susan Gordon-Clark, Danette Cuming, Charlotte Rae, Tracy Katz, Cleo Laine, Don Crosby, Anne Rickenbacher, Rex Robbins, Chuck Wagner, Marguerite Lowell, Douglas Sills, Nora Mae Lyng, Marcus Olson.

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