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'Into the Woods' Has A Spellbinding Reunion

Maureen Lee Lenker |
November 10, 2014 | 5:51 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Bernadette Peters performs a staggering rendition of "Stay With Me" (Doug Gifford)
Bernadette Peters performs a staggering rendition of "Stay With Me" (Doug Gifford)
Once Upon a Time…

There was a musical about a childless baker and his wife, a witch who wanted to reclaim her youthful beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and others living in a far-off fairy-tale kingdom. The musical went on to win 3 Tony Awards and capture the imagination of musical theatre lovers the world over. And “Into the Woods” lived happily-ever-after in the annals of musical theatre history. 

In fact, according to Music Theatre International, about 600,000 people have been involved in a production of “Into the Woods” since its Broadway debut in 1987 — meaning that a staggeringly larger number of people have seen the show at least once. 

“Into the Woods” has undoubtedly touched the hearts and minds of many, and for those fans of the musical and musical theatre in general, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ “Into the Woods” Reunion was the theater-going experience of a lifetime.

There was a palpable excitement in the air from the moment you arrived, and fans were greeted with a treat before they even entered the house — original props and costumes from the Broadway production were on display throughout two levels of the lobby. From the chance to sit in Cinderella’s stepsisters’ carriage to displays featuring the witch’s iconic cloak and staff and the colorful garb of the Baker and his wife, the event was a smorgasbord of Broadway history.

SEE ALSO: Go 'Into The Woods' At The Segerstrom Center

Then, the real magic began. The event opened with the words of the musical’s narrator, “Once Upon a Time,” and the moderator for the afternoon, Mo Rocca. Rocca was an admirable moderator throughout, giddy with the same glee pulsing from the audience. His moderation regularly featured references to lines of dialogue and lyrics from the play, heightening the sheer joy of the entire proceedings.

Rocca then welcomed to the stage two men who have entered the musical theater pantheon alongside the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein for their contributions to the medium — the creators of “Into the Woods,” book writer/director James Lapine and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. As soon as they stepped foot on stage, they were welcomed with a thunderous standing ovation — a regular occurrence throughout the afternoon (it was more akin to being at a rock concert than a theatrical presentation). I think every person in the room was thunderstruck to be breathing the same air as these two gods of the Great White Way (at least I was).

Bernadette Peters performs with the original cast of "Into the Woods" (Doug Gifford)
Bernadette Peters performs with the original cast of "Into the Woods" (Doug Gifford)
Lapine and Sondheim shared joyous reminiscences of how “Into the Woods” came to be, why its themes and messages were important to them, and what the musical has continued to mean in their lives twenty-seven years later. Sondheim explained that after the success of 1984’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” the two men were eager to work together again and that Sondheim had always wanted to write a quest musical in the vein of “The Wizard of Oz.” Lapine revealed that he and his wife were expecting at the time he was writing the show, so fairy-tales and the terror of being a parent were weighing heavily on his mind. Both spoke of their desire to merge the mythic and the real in their storytelling, as well as their tendency to depict characters as being caught in between what you want and what you don’t want.

In addition to reminiscing about the production’s genesis and the greater meaning behind the story and songs, the two also shared tales of the production’s history. Most notably, they shared a Broadway secret that has intrigued fans since the show’s debut — how the witch made her transformation from old hag to youthful beauty — it turns out they’d used a body double with pre-recorded dialogue and a carefully placed trap door.

SEE ALSO: THEATER TALK: Meet The Cast Of The Into The Woods Movie

While hearing these two legends of musical theatre speak was a rare treat, the best was yet to come as the original Baker, Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, and the Witch took turns sharing their own memories of the production and performing their most famous numbers. 

Chip Zien, Ben Wright, Danielle Ferland, and Kim Crosby sing "No One is Alone" (Doug Gifford)
Chip Zien, Ben Wright, Danielle Ferland, and Kim Crosby sing "No One is Alone" (Doug Gifford)
To see Joanna Gleason, who won a Tony for creating the role of the Baker’s Wife, perform “It Takes Two” and “Any Moment/Moments in the Woods” was spectacular — and not an ounce of the vitality and humor she so famously brought to the role has faded from her performance. Gleason explained that performing “Into the Woods” is an amazing experience for a musical theater actor because there is no necessary mental distinction between singing and speaking — you can slide effortlessly from one to the other.

Cast members reflected on how the show changed their lives — Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood) was still in high school when she started in the role and James Lapine wrote her letter of recommendation to NYU. And, in the most charming twist of fate, Kim Crosby (Cinderella) and Robert Westenberg (Cinderella’s Prince) met on the production and have now been happily married for twenty-three years.

Their storytelling was interspersed with musical performances — Cinderella’s monologue in song “On the Steps of the Palace;” the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood brought cheeky humor in their physicality and light dance steps on “Hello, Little Girl;” and Jack (Ben Wright) still sounded as clear-toned and youthful on “Giants in the Sky” as he does on the cast recording. 

It was incredibly fun to watch the cast and creators interact as well — they have a genuine affection for each other and you could sense how much they were enjoying this chance to play together on stage once more. Lapine was so delighted, he even regularly snapped photos and took video with his cell phone throughout the proceedings.

Joanna Gleason and Robert Westenberg reanact a tryst in the woods (Doug Gifford)
Joanna Gleason and Robert Westenberg reanact a tryst in the woods (Doug Gifford)
As with many musicals, the showstoppers came in the second act — the legendary Bernadette Peters took to the stage and you could hear a sharp intake of breath from the audience  as soon as she opened her mouth because her speaking voice is almost as iconic as her vocal abilities. Her time onstage was full of delights — from her recounting of essentially asking James Lapine for the role of the witch to her breaking into an impromptu bit of the witch’s rap, while wearing the witch’s nose, which she revealed she’s kept as a memento all these years.

Though, of course, the most remarkable moment was seeing Peters sing “Stay With Me,” “Your Fault,” and “Last Midnight” live. “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” are an iconic part of Peters’ repertoire — as associated with her voice as “Popular” is with Kristin Chenoweth’s. Her performance of “Stay With Me” was soul-shattering — it’s a heart-wrenching song and Peters’ laid herself bare emotionally and vocally on the number. The audience was so enthralled that you could’ve heard a pin drop in the room. Her voice and stage presence are so powerful, that it’s impossible not to be   completely mesmerized when she performs.

The event ended in the same fashion as the show — with the ballad “No One is Alone” and a full-cast reprise of “Into the Woods.” If you weren’t moved to tears by “Stay With Me,” then “No One is Alone” decimated whatever remaining emotional composure you had left. The song took on an extra poignance having just witnessed the actors and creators discuss their own journeys since the show’s debut. It seemed to speak profoundly to the ability of theatre to unite its participants and audiences within a supportive, protective community.  And that truly is the gift of great theatre, whether you’re an audience member or participant in the process, it reminds you of our shared humanity — productions and people may leave you, and ultimately, you decide what’s good, but still no one is alone. That reminder is the real enchantment of the show, and particularly, of this reunion.

The "Into The Woods" Reunion was a one-night only event at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts (600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa). For more information about upcoming shows visit www.SCFTA.org

Contact Staff Writer Maureen Lee Lenker here.

For more Theater & Dance coverage click here.



 

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