Children, Remember This: The Closer to the Family, The Closer to the Wine

“What If?” With those two little words, we can be transported to a fairy-tale world, a world where stories are simple and morals clear. We know the morals of stories like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. But where are the fairy-tales for adults; where are the stories that can help guide us along the path as grown-ups and parents. Often, they are in the theatre.

One such morality play was written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine in the 1980s: “Into the Woods”. I’ll let Sondheim’s website describe the show:

Into the Woods blends various familiar fairy tales with an original story of a childless Baker and his Wife, who catalyze the action of the story by attempting to reverse a curse on their family in order to have a child.

In the first act, the characters set out to achieve their goal of living “Happily Ever After” through familiar routes – Cinderella goes to the Ball and captures the heart of Prince Charming, Jack climbs the Beanstalk and finds a land of Giants and Gold, Little Red Riding Hood survives her clash with the wolf at Grandma’s house, and Rapunzel manages to escape her tower with the aid of a handsome prince who climbs her long hair. The Baker and his Wife move through their stories while pursuing their own goal – the witch who keeps Rapunzel (revealed to be the Baker’s sister) has put the curse on his house, and agrees to lift it if the Baker and his Wife can find the ingredients to help her reverse a spell which her mother has laid on her, keeping her old and ugly. Those ingredients are: A Slipper As Pure As Gold, which the Baker’s wife gets from Cinderella, A Cow As White As Milk, which the Baker buys from Jack in exchange for the fateful magic beans, A Cape As Red As Blood, which the Baker gets from Little Red Riding Hood in exchange for freeing her and Granny from the Wolf, and Hair As Yellow As Corn, which they get from Rapunzel. The ingredients are gathered, and the spell works, stripping the Witch of her power, but restoring her beauty. At the end of Act I, all characters seem poised to live “Happily Ever After”.

Act Two, however, deals with the consequences that traditional fairy tales conveniently ignore. What does one do with a dead Giant in the back yard? Does marrying a Prince really lead to a happy and fulfilling life? Is carving up the wolf the solution? Is the Giant always wrong? In Act Two, all the characters must deal with what happens AFTER “Happily Ever After”. As they face a genuine threat to their community, they realize that all actions have consequences, and their lives are inescapably interdependent, but also that that interdependence is their greatest strength.

“Into the Woods” teaches significant lessons: that children learn from their parents both the good and the bad; that people are quick to blame but slow to take responsibility; that success comes from working together; and that we must be careful what we wish for, for wishes have consequences.

I mention this all because last night we went to the Lyric Theatre ( ) in Hollywood (the former WCE space at 520 N La Brea) to see their production of “Into The Woods”, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. I’ve seen “Into The Woods” in a large setting — when it first went on tour in 1989, we saw the production (with Cleo Laine as the witch) at the Ahmanson Theatre. The Lyric production gave the opportunity to see the show in a Waiver (99-or-less seat) setting, which was a completely different and remarkable setting, seeing the actors up close and personal. And the lyric did an excellent job with the production.

Part of the strength of “Into the Woods” comes from the strong book and music. These were unchanged by the Lyric and shone through. What made the lyric production was the acting, something that a Waiver theatre can impart with more strength than a mega-house production. A number of the performances in this production were simply standout — I was moved and touched by these actors, and would really love to see more of their work. Let me share a few of my favorites with you before I summarize the rest of the cast and turn to the technical side:

  • Kat Kramer (), as the Baker’s Wife, gave a riveting performance. Not only could she sing very strongly, but she was one of those performers who just mesmerized you with their facial expressions and mannerisms. She inhabited the character (something I love to see) and gave her such playfullness, strength, and joy I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
  • Ryan Braun (), as the Baker (as well as the director of the production), was also a strong singer and actor. In many ways, he reminded me of a younger Kevin Earley) — both in terms of facial structure and his singing abilities. Again, he was someone whose talent kept you focused on them — an engaging performer who inhabited the role.
  • Erin Zaruba (), as Cinderella, was other actor who was a delight to watch. Strong singing, strong facial expressions, strong movement. One of the treats of the performance.
  • Brent Schindeleæ (Cinderella’s Prince, The Wolf, … and a member of the band) is someone we’ve seen before — at both the Colony (“Musical of Musicals”) and West Coast Ensemble (“Zanna Don’t”). Another strong actor, who was truly the charming (but not sincere) prince.
  • Amanda Noret (Little Red) was also fun to watch. Although a bit old for the traditional casting of the role, she became the child onstage, making one forget her chronological age. This is the mark of a good actress.
  • Sean Spann () was an excellent narrator. Again, he had fun with this role, and a playfullness and joy that came across as he unfolded the story. I’ll also note that he would be great as the lead in “A Class Act”.

A number of the other cast members were equally strong and were having fun with their roles: Sam Ayoub () (Jack), Thomas Colbyæ (Steward), Kathi Copelandæ () (Jack’s Mother), Rachel Howe (Rapunzel), Daniel O’Donnell (Cinderella’s Father), and Robert Tafoya () (Rapunzel’s Prince).

There were a few actor weaknesses. Dorrie Braun, as the witch, simply didn’t come off strong enough. The Witch needs to be a powerhouse performance, and she was just overpowered by the other actors. I was also less impressed by Cinderella’s female relatives: Elizabeth Harmetz (Stepmother), Mirna Carbajal () (Lucinda), and Joyanna Crouse (Florinda). These three just didn’t come off with the right sense of evil… they didn’t connect. Note that I’m not saying these folks were bad, but rather there was something lacking that could be improved.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side. The set design (Jules Vallier) was clever, turning the black-box space of the Lyrics into a woodlike atmosphere that allowed the actors sufficient movement. The lighting design by Ric Zimmerman was remarkable, using not only conventional lights but an LED light that I’ve never seen before. The sound design by Jesse Laks was unnoticable in the amplification (a good thing), and excellent from the sound effects side of thing. No credits were provided regarding costuming and wigs, which were very good.

The production was directed by Ryan Braun, assissted by Sean Spann. Choreography was by Kat Kramer and Erin Zaruba. All four of these were some of the best actors as well, making them multiple-threats, on and off stage. The music director was Gary Mattison (), who led the 2-, sometimes 3-piece band of keyboards and flute. The stage manager was Allie Roy.

Into the Woods” continues at the Lyric until December 14. There is no performance on Thanksgiving. Tickets are available through the Lyric or via Goldstar Events.

As for us, our next show is Saturday, November 15 @ 8pm, when we see “The Lady With All The Answers” at the Pasadena Playhouse. 11/21 brings “Spring Awakening” at the Ahmanson. Friday 11/28 brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th, 5th, and 6th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Lastly, I need to remember to explore tickets for “I Love My Wife (Reprise), which only runs 12/2-12/14 — right around the dates of ACSAC. We’re still working on our schedule of theatre for 1Q09; suggestions are welcome.