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Vanessa Williams in Into the Woods
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"We've got a hit," said the press agent -- and how nice, after seeing Into the Woods at the Ahmanson Theater, to find that he was right. The Broadway-bound production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's revisionist take on classic fairy tales is selling plenty of tickets, and for good reason: the cast and crew have put together an almost seamless show. With one or two exceptions, the talented company sings and emotes admirably, reveling in Sondheim's remarkable score. The music, from the ebullient title song to the haunting "No One Is Alone," was written for voices that are wide of range and emotion, and this cast comes through with flying colors in that regard.

The main characters of Into the Wood include such familiar fairy tale figures as Cinderella and Rapunzel and their respective princes, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack (of beanstalk fame), all of whom are presented as living in the same village. To this mix Sondheim and Lapine have added the Baker and his Wife, a childless couple who are under the curse of a witch and seek to end it. Said witch launches the couple on a quest that includes poaching various valuables from the other characters, such as Jack's cow and Rapunzel's hair.

Douglas Schmidt's set design for this new production is filled with images of fairy tale books, castles, and trees, all enlarged to a grand scale. The magical and dangerous woods are represented by branch-filled green trees and colorful lighting. It is in these woods that the characters become lost, a metaphor for the game of life and how it's played. Everyone must go to the woods, lose his way, and eventually find his way home. The woods entice the innocent in the same way that fairy tales fascinate children.

Vanessa Williams is obviously playing against type as the Witch, a role that allows her plenty of room to stretch--and that she does, giving a thorough, not-too-showy performance and singing in a strong, soaring voice. Williams bobs and weaves around the stage as the bent, snarled old crone. Her Witch is cruel, to be sure, but also hip to the facts of life; even at her most repulsive, she offers worldly wise advice to the confused ensemble. (Fans of Williams who aren't already familiar with the show will be relieved to find that the ugly Witch is eventually transformed into a dazzlingly beautiful witch, giving the audience plenty of opportunity drink in the star's exceptional loveliness.)

Broadway veteran John McMartin is excellent as a Narrator with a sense of irony, relishing the character's asides and playing the role with a wink and a chuckle. He narrates the show most entertainingly and also takes part in the action. Laura Benanti, with her sweet soprano, is wonderful to listen to in the role of Cinderella; even better is her dead-on funny interpretation of the girl as tired of those glass slippers and tired of being chased by a Prince Charming she's not sure she wants to know. Gregg Edelman and Christopher Sieber get the joke of their stock characters as (respectively) Cinderella's and Rapunzel's princes: These are straight-arrow guys with little more on their minds than chivalry and romance.

MaryLouise Burke is delightfully humorous as the nagging mother of Jack (played by a wily Adam Wylie); Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley are well cast as the anxious Baker and his Wife; and Molly Ephraim is a precocious Little Red Riding Hood. If the success of the Los Angeles engagement is any indicator, Into the Woods will live happily ever after (again!) on Broadway.

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