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'Into the Woods' reunion shows Sondheim can still cast a spell

'Into the Woods' reunion shows Sondheim can still cast a spell
Bernadette Peters revisits her “Into the Woods” role in a reunion fea turing the musical’s creators and original cast at the Segerstrom Center. (Doug Gifford)

"Once upon a time," the open sesame of childhood fantasy, worked its magic on adults Sunday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where an "Into the Woods" reunion was held with the show's creators, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, and several of the original cast members, including Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason.

Devotees of this show — and who knew "Into the Woods" had such vociferous groupies? — didn't need much more than a recording of these four little words spoken by the narrator at the top of the musical to set their nostalgia aflame.

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An afternoon session was added to contend with ticket demand for the Sunday evening reunion. The atmosphere at the matinee was more like that of a rock concert than a typical musical theater outing; soft rock perhaps, but the enthusiasm was raucously hard core.

The reunion mixed interview chitchat with excerpts from the show, which were lovingly performed even as they reminded how tough some of these songs are to sing. "No One Is Alone," of course, is the number that melted everyone into a collective puddle, disproving once and for all that Sondheim is all brain and no heart. (His is a brainy heart.)

Mo Rocca, the gallivanting humorist, served as moderator, principal fanboy and audience warm-up — the last role proving completely superfluous for a crowd that was on hair-trigger alert for standing ovations.

Yes, my fellow Sondheim aficionados, an "Into the Woods" craze is upon us. This summer the Old Globe, where the musical was first produced in 1986, presented Fiasco Theatre's minimalist reinvention. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's enchanting outdoor revival is moving indoors to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills in December.

Oh, and you may have heard about a little Disney film version with a cast that includes Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep that's scheduled to open on Christmas Day.

Hollywood has certainly put the wind in the sails of this musical that strings together classic fairy tales with modern psychology, but this is a worldwide phenomenon: After this reunion Lapine was heading to China, where a major new Mandarin language production is underway.

Lapine proposed that one reason "Into the Woods" continues to exert a hold on theatergoers everywhere is that "there is always a giant, some force, we have to battle." In other words, it has the same appeal as the fairy tales this musical brings together, no matter that Act 2 is spent filling us in on the neurotic stuff that can happen when wishes come true.

The show's origin was as serpentine as a forest path in a Grimm fable. Sondheim shared that he had long wanted to write "a quest musical like "The Wizard of Oz," and that he and Lapine had been toying with doing something with fairy tales fresh off their success in "Sunday in the Park With George."

To make money, the two tried to sell to TV producer Norman Lear the idea of a musical special gathering together sitcom characters in a hospital setting, with TV doctors tending to the various emergencies. Lear was apparently intrigued but wanted to see a script; Sondheim and Lapine were only peddling the idea.

But this mash-up concept wound up giving their stalled fairy-tale project new life. Sondheim, generous as always to his book-writers, praised Lapine's "brilliantly" executed plotting and his unique ability to direct his own work.

There has been so much Sondheim mania in recent years, including Lapine's superb 2013 documentary film "Six by Sondheim," that this reunion was memorable mostly for the emotion it allowed us to witness. Sondheim seemed genuinely moved by the rousing cheers that greeted his entrance and he looked even more humbled by all the gratitude directed to him by the actors whose careers he helped change.

Mostly, it was an uncomplicated love-fest, though Gleason, who won a Tony for playing the Baker's wife, revealed that Chip Zien, who played the Baker, was the only actor whom she has ever hit. Zien didn't mind being dubbed cast "curmudgeon," though he revealed a tender side in his homage to the late Tom Aldredge, who played the narrator.

Ben Wright, who originated the role of Jack, still has a dapper voice, though he left showbiz to become a financial planner, investing the golden eggs of giants rather than smuggling them down beanstalks. Danielle Ferland, who played Little Red Riding Hood, said that she asked Lapine to write her recommendation to NYU, where she received her bachelor of arts. (She would have asked Sondheim, she said, but she was too nervous.)

Happy endings aren't apparently all a narrative lie: Kim Crosby, who played Cinderella (and whose singing is still clear as a bell), really did find a prince in the show. She married Robert Westenberg, who played both Prince and the Wolf, the latter role involving an anatomically correct costume that was the source of some very funny recollections.

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Peters, clearly under the spell of an enchantress (she hasn't aged a day), said that the line that still resonates most for her is "Careful the things you say" from "Children Will Listen." Both in her singing and her comments, she conveyed the delicacy of this emotional wisdom.

Sondheim's favorite line from the show is when the Baker's wife, fed up with a nasty witch and threatening giants, exclaims to her husband, "We are moving!"

"That is what the whole show is about to me," he said.

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