The actors mingle with one another and audience members before the show as if what lies ahead is not an official performance but just another rehearsal. The casually dressed musicians take their seats onstage, looking more like spectators than an orchestra. Costumes are conspicuously absent, music stands abound and the only hints of scenery come from the hyacinths, lilies and bluebells sitting atop the grand piano.
This production of "Into the Woods," which opened Wednesday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, begins in a flamboyantly deconstructed manner, which is only fitting given that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical is itself an insouciant deconstruction of classic fairy tales.
Directed by Amanda Dehnert, this revival originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in an outdoor space where the moon's glow was part of the lighting scheme and the breeze felt by the characters had theatergoers shivering along with them. The move indoors seemed bumpy in the early going — casual came off as a little sloppy at the ritzy Beverly Hills Wallis — but the production hit its stride as the imaginative world started coming to life with droll costumes and bursts of scenic color.
"Into the Woods" is all the rage at the moment, thanks to the soon-to-be-released Disney film adaptation with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. What's special about Dehnert's staging is the way it marries the frolicsome spirit of Lapine's book with the shadowy hues of Sondheim's insinuating score. The playfulness of the work isn't at odds with its somber depth. Here, joy and sorrow high-five like old pals.
The cast is devoid of big names, but the actors meld into a true ensemble. The sharpest portrayals are marked by a youthful puckishness — Kjerstine Rose Anderson's hilarious Little Red Riding Hood (imagine the role being played by a Rachel Dratch with serious musical theater chops), Miles Fletcher's fresh-as-a-beanstalk Jack, Royer Bockus' angelic-voiced Rapunzel and Jennie Greenberry's melodious-in-every-way Cinderella.
Jeff Skowron wasn't originally in the OSF production, but he has performed the role of the Baker before and can sing it ably, though the vocal and acting chemistry with Rachael Warren, who plays the Baker's Wife, isn't quite there yet. John Vickery, who doubles as Narrator and Mysterious Stranger, is also a new addition. His characterizations are more vivid than tuneful.
If there's one complaint about this otherwise delightful production it's that the singing from some of the older cast members can sound ragged at times. Catherine E. Coulson, who is piteously adorable as Milky White, the poor old cow Jack has to give up, gamely takes on a number of roles, making up in comic zest what she lacks in vocal strength. A few less prominently showcased cast members, however, aren't given the opportunity to cover up their deficiencies.
Still, I can't remember when I appreciated Sondheim's score more. The reason is that Dehnert, also the musical director, fuses speech and song seamlessly in her staging.
Miriam A. Laube hasn't the vocal gifts of Bernadette Peters, who played the Witch in the original Broadway production, but she brings compelling individual textures to her handling of "Stay With Me" and "Children Will Listen," two of the most moving numbers in the show. Warren expresses both the philosophical ache and bawdy shrug of "Moments in the Woods," her post-extramarital-dalliance showstopper.
"Agony," sung by the cast's two Princes, Jeremy Peter Johnson and John Tufts, is appropriately performed with laddish brio. And Greenberry offers a stunning rendition of "No One Is Alone" that crystallizes the pathos and spirit of perseverance that endows this show with emotional maturity.
The production, far more spry than solemn, is shot through with fertile wit. This is a theatrical world in which the Princes ride tricycles, the hideous witch enters in a wheelchair and Little Red Riding Hood insatiably eats carbs as she carries her red plastic grocery basket to grandmother's house.
Incidentally, the wolf this bratty gal in the red cape meets along her way is played by two actors, one singing (Johnson, who also plays Cinderella's Prince) and one signing (Howie Seago) — and both looking like baddies on "Breaking Bad." The manner by which she is devoured and eventually rescued is a humorous bit I won't spoil by explaining.
"Into the Woods" is a romp, but a haunting one that invites you to consider the slippery ethical path of making dreams come true. Then it takes its inquiry a step further, asking whether ill-gotten gains are survivable, never mind worth having.
This OSF production at the Wallis may not have the star power of the screen version coming out on Christmas Day, but it has the buoyancy and complexity of feeling that have turned Sondheim and Lapine's work into a modern classic. I can't think of a better holiday treat than seeing this dark fantasy musical performed live at this jewel box theater.