On Wednesday evening, I ventured to the Ahmanson for opening night of Into the Woods with one of my most trusted champions of the American theatre. Zoë I have known since childhood. She is now a senior at LMU who will be graduating with a degree in screenwriting in like, two months! Time does fly. ANYWAY, she had specifically asked if she could join me for this production, as she was a big fan of the musical, especially after living through Disney's film interpretation with her very musical family a few years ago. She was also looking forward to this Fiasco Theater rendition, in which the actors also served as the show's musicians. Of course I was happy to go with someone so enthusiastic about the content, considering that I had only ever seen a middle school production of the show performed, that actually might have only been the first act of the play (which can kind of stand alone as a complete piece of theatre)!
The day after the show, while still working on this piece, someone asked me "how minimalist is this production?" I'm not sure if minimal is the word I would use to describe it even. It's more like a very family-friendly, multi-role, stripped down edition of the original musical. At the beginning of the play the actors are walking around the stage casually, sometimes communicating directly with people in the audience until Anthony Chatmon II (who will later play one of the princes, one of Cinderella's stepsisters and the wolf) welcomes the audience, makes the cell phone announcement and commences the beginning of the show. A mobile pianist is stationed center stage while the cast begins the opening number standing in a row. Something about that brought me back to a choir or a music class. Simple yet strong. The rest of the production gradually, imaginatively deviates from that tone as the show continues. The style is kind of like playing dress up in your grandmother's attic. She's got a bunch of old clothes, some random props, taxidermy of your grandfather's (but he's a vegetarian now) and even some instruments from their old family band stint, back in the day.
"If you know
What you want,
Then you go
And you find it
And you get it-"
-The Baker's Wife
So, did I like all that. Yes. Did I LOVE that? No. This is not one of the best shows I've seen all year, but I still really enjoyed it. Zoë and I had a great time, and I think it would be a lot of fun to bring a younger patron to this production. I am a fan of this musical. For me the lyrics are very powerful and I appreciate the risks Lapine & Sondheim made musically to make these classic fairytale characters relatable, funnier, darker, smarter and even more realistic at times. Acting wise, Zoë especially loved Darick Pead, who commanded the audiences' attentions in each of his hilarious roles as the other prince, the other step-sister and Jack's cow Milkey White. He always had our attention and his comedic timing was excellent. I was also impressed with Stephanie Umoh's outside-the-box interpretation of the Witch. Music-wise, everything sounds fine. But Zoë and I asked ourselves if the instrumental might be a more powerful storytelling device if it were played by a full orchestra continually throughout the piece. Because basically, we have an extremely talented pianist/music director, Evan Rees, underscoring the entire show, followed up by Fred Rose who plays the cello, guitar and some percussion as well as his role as the Mysterious Man among a few other minor characters. Sometimes the other actors will add musically, though various percussion, bassoon, trumpet, guitar and others...but most of the time it's the piano playing with one of two other instruments while the actors do their acting. Again, it sounds fine, but in the big house environment of the Ahmanson, I think I was craving a full-time band.
"When you know you can't have what you want,
Where's the profit in wishing?" -The Baker's Wife
At intermission we chatted with Anthony, an old friend of mine from college theatre. He and I both agreed that this style of performance could be more powerful in a smaller, more intimate venue, but at the same time, we were happy the cast had the opportunity to perform in front of a house this size. It would have been better on the thrust stage of the Taper, but it would have been even better than that in a more up-close and personal venue. "Well, I think CTG is just trying to do something different. To be a little more outside the box with their content, you know" he told me with a shrug of his shoulders. But seriously, I guess my point is, if I had a dollar for every time someone referred to Center Theatre Group saying "I think they're trying to do something different" with a mildly quizzical look on their face...I'd be Michael Richie status, on both the payroll level and the "how do I please the American theatre pubic as a huge artistic director?" level. I don't know. It's a fine line. Should we be making small theatre bigger, or small theatre more accessible?
"But then what if he knew
Who I am when I know
That I'm not what he thinks
That he wants?"
What does the show make me want to change about myself? There were a number of quotes that I wrote down while watching this show, some that I have already mentioned here. Many lyrics remind us that we are the masters of our own destiny, and that when we feel trapped, we have the power to make a change, to run away, to prove and improve ourselves. The second act is very existential and I appreciated that at this stage of life. As a younger theatre-goer I would have been like, "What the hell? Pull yourselves together," but now I'm like, "Yeah...I get it." This will probably sound a little dramatic, but one of the closing numbers, really caused me to think about my parents and how they devoted the second half of their lives to raising my brother and sister and I. "Careful before you say, 'listen to me,' children will listen," made me think about the choices and sacrifices they made and how our lives were affected in hindsight. And how I hope we can honor them by living our best lives for them, since they gave up so much for us. This line also makes me think about the impact I may have on my own children someday and children around me today..