What Happens When “Into the Woods” Gets Political in LA?

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

"Into the Woods" at the Hollywood Bowl

I’ve seen Into the Woods enough times to be a little wary of giving it another go. This particular Sondheim work reminds me of a soufflé: Done right, it’s an exquisite feast for the eyes and ears; the heart and the soul. If not, it’ll collapse into a hot mess. But the chance to see it from a box seat at LA’s fabled Hollywood Bowl with my bestie on a beautiful summer evening? Irresistible.

As soon as I heard that out-and-proud Broadway lead Cheyenne Jackson was among the cast, I was All In. Pair that with the equally dashing Chris Carmack, (the actor who played a gay country star on Nashville) alongside two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, and you’ve got a gay royal flush. All that was missing was Kristen Chenoweth, who was already across town hosting an Outfest screening. This production’s casting gurus had something for everyone. For the Millennials, there was Gaten Matarazzo (from Stranger Things) playing Jack. And to throw in a little spice, Whoopi Goldberg had a featured role as the Giant, who could’ve literally phoned in her role since she’s heard only and never seen.

Story Time

For the uninitiated, Into the Woods (which opened on Broadway in 1987) boasts an imaginative book by James Lapine which takes familiar characters from fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, the Baker and his Wife, and Jack and his legendary beanstalk) and reinvents them. They’re interwoven into a single cohesive mash-up which more realistically resembles the complexities of modern life.

Together, Lapine and Sondheim turn clichéd stereotypes inside out, upending expectations and allowing characters to grapple with complicated issues in a way that’s universal. At the center of this tale is a curse which has left the Baker and his wife (masterfully performed by Skylar Astin and Sutton Foster) childless. A Witch makes a deal with the couple to remove the curse, sending them on a scavenger hunt in order to break the spell.

Follow the Yellow Brick…

If it sounds like Dorothy and her pals’ journey in The Wizard of Oz, don’t blame Lapine for borrowing a formula that’s already tried and true. When the characters achieve their goals by the end of the first act, it feels as if the play could be over. In fact, when the musical was first mounted at the Old Globe, scores of audience members left at intermission thinking just that. Which is why subsequent performances include the advisory TO BE CONTINUED in the narrator’s dialogue to let the audience know the story is far from over. As in life, what we initially perceive as “happily ever after” can foreshadow a whole new set of problems.

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Cheyenne Jackson dazzles in his double duty as both the Big Bad Wolf and the Prince. But the vocal and comedic interplay between the two dashing Prince brothers (Cheyenne and Chris Carmack) was the delight of the night. Their voices blended beautifully and their timing was spot on, easily eclipsing the onscreen duo of Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen from the 2014 film. Two additional standouts were Patina Miller as the Witch and Sierra Boggess as Cinderella. Ms. Miller was menacing and mercurial one minute, then wickedly funny the next.

Are you a good witch?

As the story shifts gears, the witch is revealed in a more vulnerable light. True to form, Ms. Miller was equally adept as the codependent parent who seeks to punish her daughter (Rapunzel) for what she regards as personal betrayal. (*Spoiler alerts ahead) When the curse is broken, the Witch reclaims her former beauty, and unleashes a fierce rendition of “The Last Midnight.” One of the funniest scenes is when the Prince (Cheyenne Jackson) inadvertently hits on the Baker’s wife (Foster) in the woods. The notion of the Prince seducing the Plain-Jane Baker’s wife makes for comedy gold as her astonishment gives way to complete and total surrender.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Gaten Matarazzo as Jack. Matarazzo breathed life into this young man who, by today’s diagnostic standards, would probably fall somewhere on the Asperger spectrum. Matarazzo evokes a genuine innocence which makes the character both believable and endearing. As it turns out, Matarazzo has his own Broadway bona fides dating back to Priscilla Queen of Desert at age 9 and Les Miserables by age 11.

The Moral of the Story

In a day and age where the soul of our country and our way of life is under siege, Into the Woods’ message is profoundly resonant. Just as the witch laments that we cannot count on any “royal family” to save us, we Americans cannot expect our political leaders to solve our problems. No one is going to rescue us but ourselves. We must summon enough courage to venture into the woods and confront our adversaries, be they giants, ogres, monsters or Oval Office occupants. The people of Puerto Rico proved it’s possible.

Into the Woods provides a more empowering message than Dorothy simply clicking her heels and wishing something were so. It’s up to us to do the heavy lifting and reclaim our power. That’s a point underscored when even the narrator realizes that he is ill-equipped to fulfill his duty and that we are all in uncharted waters. There is no clear path ahead. But it’s not all doom and gloom, for Sondheim and Lapine reassure us that despite all the scary things life may throw at us, no one is alone. Last but not least, kudos to director Robert Longbottom for delivering a first-rate production that was firing on all cylinders.

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Last modified: August 6, 2019