A Magical ‘Into the Woods’ at the Wallis Annenberg Center

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Into the Woods production photo - from Annenberg Center website

Into the Woods production photo – from Annenberg Center website

Last Thursday night, my wife Carrie and I and our friend (and my mom’s close friend) Michael went to see Into the Woods on stage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. It was wonderful.

Spoiler Note: if you’re about to go see this production, don’t read after the jump below. There’s a great trick that you’ll want to be surprised by.

I’ve seen Into the Woods over a half-dozen times on stage, including seeing an early version of the musical in San Diego before it went to Broadway. I’ve watched the basic video of the Broadway cast performance maybe a dozen times. I’ve listened to the cast recording more than a hundred times.

My mom was a huge Stephen Sondheim fan. So we would go see Sondheim musicals being performed all around greater Los Angeles. I’ve written a little about Sondheim earlier at this blog: here, here, and here.

I subjected my wife to the original Broadway cast video, and even (thanks, Michael!) to the recent 20-year original cast reunion performance in Orange County, but this was her first time seeing Into the Woods live on stage. I read about the Annenberg performance and was interested to see it on stage, in part, because there’s a big Into the Woods movie that’s about to come out, and I wanted my wife to see it on stage before she sees it on the big screen. Though I am sometimes disappointed with books I like being made into movies, I am looking forward to the Into the Woods movie. I expect that it will introduce this great work to a much broader audience. But… it’s going to be a new interpretation, with some edits and some liberties taken… and it’s likely to carve a deep groove. I expect that my wife and my daughter and I will see the film version over and over.

All that to say that I was really looking forward to seeing the stage version.

And it didn’t disappoint.

The Annenberg version of Into the Woods was originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF, where my wife’s mom saw it and enjoyed it.) I don’t know who to credit with excellent directorial decisions I saw on stage, so I’ll list a few folks who likely collaborated: Bill Rauch, Artistic Director, Amanda Dehnert, Director/Musical Director, Rachel Hauck, Scenic Designer, and Linda Roethke, Costume Designer.

Into the Woods can be a really big production. There’s a cow, an entire woods, a couple of huge beanstalks, towers, and two giants (not to mention an ensemble cast and an orchestra!) In staging it, there are often stand-ins for these off-stage presences, such as a giant pair of glasses to show the scale of the giant. (This bigness is part of what I am looking forward to seeing in the movie version.) The Annenberg/OSF production was just slightly on the sparse side. The orchestra was on-stage, there were a few ladders and platforms, but not, at least at the beginning, much in the way of set design apparent at the beginning of the play.

Into the Woods has among its themes magic and transformation. The Annenberg/OSF production used stage magic in a great, stagey way: characters would occasionally appear out of boxes, the witch’s transformation was played as a sort of staged magic trick performance.

And then there was one big stage magic trick. (Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t read any further if you’re going to go see it.) Before the play started, the actors were mingling casually on stage. They would talk with each other, and with audience members in the front rows. They were wearing more-or-less everyday-looking clothes – mostly beiges and grays. The orchestra was warming up. The play got going and the Cinderella actress was singing looking into a black binder of music pages, like a staged walk-through or early rehearsal. Jack is stroking a pot with the word “cow” written on it. There were basically no sets – typically there are three homes on stage: for Cinderella, Jack and the Baker’s family.

The vocals and music were good… but I was thinking “what the hell?” This is just a rehearsal. The tickets cost a lot. I was looking forward to my wife seeing a “real” stage production. My expectations sunk. Disappointment began to set in.

Then various characters at various points leave the stage (as the plot requires) and they re-enter with portions of costumes. After 15-30 minutes that disappointing rehearsal has transformed into a fully-staged production! By initially tricking me into lowering my expectations, when the clever actual staging appeared, it felt even more wondrous. It was magic.

It reminds me a little of a trick from Charles Ives orchestral piece Central Park In the Dark. Ives has violins play a steady pulsing tune throughout the piece. At one point the entire rest of the orchestra loudly crescendos (there’s even a second conductor on stage, as the violins and the rest are diverging) then abruptly there’s silence. Well, not quite silence, because the violins are playing all along. Gradually from what sounds like silence post-crescendo, the violin sounds creep back into one’s ears. And it’s an effect that’s 99.9% more effective live than on any recording.

There are many more aspects of the Annenberg/OSF production that I could praise – it brought me tears of joy – but that surprise transformation was absolutely stunning. An incredible trick. Thank you to whomever came up with this. It got me to see Into the Woods again with fresh eyes. Bravo!

(I’d be remiss to not mention, too, that in many ways I brought new eyes to this, too. This is first Into the Woods production I’ve seen since becoming a husband and a parent and the first since my mother passed away – and all those relationships are themes that Into the Woods explores.)

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