She’s Little Red Ridinghood one minute, Rapunzel the next. Lisa Helmi Johanson juggles personas and hair pieces with aplomb in Fiasco Theater’s pared-back, unabashedly silly production of “Into the Woods” running through May 14 at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.
For this edited conversation, Johanson discussed her preshow routine, Avenue Q Puppet School and how a half-Korean, half-Finnish actress from Fairfax, Va., fits into the modern American musical.
Who’s more fun: Little Red Ridinghood or Rapunzel?
Tough decision. They’re both fun. From an acting standpoint, they span significant dramatic range and physical and vocal demands.
Most challenging part of either costume?
The Rapunzel hair was constantly falling down and covering my face, which, especially when twirling around on a ladder while singing, was not quite ideal. The clever folks in the costume shop installed a little cap with a thin, metal shelf to keep it more securely on my head. It's the same little head caps used by the Rockettes. I'd be lying if I said I didn't love that detail. The closest I'll ever get to being a Rockette, to be sure.
Does the stripped-down production lead to more pressure or more freedom?
There was a lot more pressure during the rehearsal process because on top of learning your acting track, you were also learning your vocal and instrument tracks and music, as well as basically being the human automation for all of the moving pieces on the stage. Once you got to a point where you could be doing the show without feeling like your head was going to explode (it took a while), then I would say that it is absolutely freeing to have your text and individual storytelling be the focus rather than fancy sets and costumes. It has undoubtedly elevated all of us as actors.
Funniest thing to go wrong so far on this tour?
There is a serious moment in Act 2 where the two regal brothers are bidding each other farewell. As one of them walks off with his horse, he is accompanied by the somber clip-clop of coconuts, which are operated by Fred Rose. After a particularly grueling few weeks of traveling between shows, that moment in the show came, but instead of horse hooves, we were shocked to hear the robust tweeting of a bird. We all did a double-take at Fred, and the stunned realization of what he was doing dawned on his face, resulting in hysteria. I couldn't look at anyone at that moment [in the show] for the next week without risk of laughing.
Best surprise on this tour?
Being cast! I'm half-Korean and half-Finnish, and although the role is not ethnically specified, every time I'm cast in a role that technically could've gone to someone of any race, it's a huge victory. I love being able to show that there's just as much validity to a mixed Asian Little Red Ridinghood as a Caucasian one. It makes my heart overflow with gratitude.
Your resume includes Avenue Q Puppet School. Biggest lesson learned there?
Everyone's a little bit racist. I keed, I keed! I actually learned incredibly valuable lessons. Honesty to your comedy will always be what wins. And that simplicity carries over into puppeteering. You can't muddy up your movements. Clarity is key!
Your “Into the Woods” preshow routine?
I warm up on our stage physically, vocally and with my trumpet [actors also play instruments] to get everything rip-roaring. We also have fight call every day to make sure we're as safe as possible with our more dangerous choreography. This show requires me to warm up with lots of legit soprano stuff as Rapunzel sings up in the rafters.
Favorite L.A. thing to do in your time off?
Hiking! I think I've already hiked about 25 miles since getting into town.
The thing you wish an L.A. person would explain because it just doesn’t make sense?
Yo. People drive crazy on the freeways! And that's coming from someone who now lives in New York! That was the first thing that sprung to mind. I also am living out my suburban dreams driving around town: You'd be amazed at the feeling of gratification to get liquids and heavy things from the grocery store without having to carry them on the subway.