“Careful the wish you make, wishes are children…sometimes the spell may last past what you can see–and turn against you!” We’re cautioned at the close of “Into The Woods”—the ‘Tony Award-winning’ musical from the minds of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine—the legendary team behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday In The Park With George”. Now, One More Productions, the resident theater-production company housed in Orange County’s landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California is staging this groundbreaking masterpiece as their inaugural show of 2022. Directed by OMP’s Co-founder and Managing Director Damien Lorton (who also serves as Musical Director) if you’re at long last ready to head back to see theater live and in-person again, this play’s ‘the thing that makes it worth the journeying!’ (And oh, what a way to kick-off their 2022 season!)
Once upon a time, (which of course, after intermission then becomes twice upon a time,) the show explores what would happen if all the various characters from some of our best-loved childhood fairy-tales—among them: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, The Big, Bad Wolf, and Little Red Ridinghood—went ‘into the woods” on the very same night in pursuit of their own individual goals and wishes, and became ‘mixed-up’ in one another’s stories?
And what would happen next when, upon achieving their hearts’ desires, they needed to come together once more to collectively deal with the unexpected outcome of having those wishes granted? After the general levity of Act One, as soon as the houselights go down again for Act Two, you quickly get that this time around it’s a whole different ballgame. “Wishes come true—not free” after all, and for every wish granted, there’s always consequences. That essentially is at the heart of “Into The Woods’. Throw in an unforgettable Tony Award-winning Sondheim score which includes “No One Is Alone”, “On The Steps Of The Palace”, “Giants In The Sky” and “Children Will Listen”, and you have one of the most innovative and original modern ‘classics’ the musical theater has seen in decades! In fact, typical of many of Sondheim’s musicals, the second act contains his most powerful compositions–often one right after the other–and “Into The Woods” is no exception, with no less than three of the scores’ mightiest: ‘The Last Midnight”, “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” all coming in rapid succession.
“Welcome back to our home!” One More Productions Co-Founder Lorton enthused on opening night of his company’s latest production, jubilantly advising First-nighters; “This is just the beginning; we wanted to give you a show about hope and love and magic–that’s why we’re going ‘Into The Woods’!” It seems in no time at all “One More Productions” has arisen to become one of the most influential and creatively innovative theater companies in all of Southern California. Once again, incorporating use of the full performance-space and upper side balcony throughout the show, Lorton’s version of this newest season opener breathes new life and vibrancy into the fairy tales (and a musical) you thought you knew. The prologue “Into The Woods” is a venerable undertaking by the ensemble, introducing us to several incipient storylines in a relatively brief span of time; and then there’s the perceptive bits of “did you catch that?” humor Director and company shrewdly infuse into the rest of the first act. Take for example, the Prince’s ‘hunt’ for Cinderella is full of terrific comedic moments—including a few savvy nods to another Tony Award winner, “Spamalot”, as the Prince mimes riding on his high horse, while his lowly Steward pretend-gallops behind clicking together two coconut shells for a nifty “horse-hooves” sound-effect. He also demonstrates other fantastic instances of imagination, like making use of a plain old everyday sawhorse, (the kind many would find in their own garage,) painted white to ‘act’ as Jack’s beloved cow “Milky White”. He continues this trend as the show races toward its conclusion when the Witch finally captures Jack and drags him back to the others—his hands tightly bound to prevent his escape. As the segment continues into a fast-paced, frenetic group endeavor, “It’s Your Fault”. Gradually that rope grows and stretches until it has all of them literally tangled up into it as they already are in their own personal ‘web of lies’.
Here is an ‘ensemble piece’ if ever there was one, and another great thing about this specific show is that each of the main characters have their ‘moment’ in the spotlight, often relating through song, their escapades (that are sure to be recognizable to all from their childhoods, but this time given a very personalized ‘spin’ by those self-same characters who ‘experienced’ them.) Prompting most of the proceedings is Adrianna Sanchez, a familiar talent at “The Gem”, as “The Witch”. Not so volatile or threatening as many other sorceresses in pop-culture nowadays, her approach is more ‘family friendly’–reminiscent of Sid and Marty Croft’s boisterous and blustery “Witchie-Poo” (only with billowing tufts of white hair in place of red!) She mines the maximum measure of comedy out of her opening rap, which gives us the backstory of who she is, who the Baker is, and why he and his wife remain childless. “You need to have the curse reversed? I’ll need a little potion first,” she instructs them, laying the groundwork for all the adventures to follow. Later in the act, she lends the Witch’s pseudo-lullaby, “Stay With Me” some nice, if misconceived, “sincerity” (considering she is singing to a girl she’s kept imprisoned in a tower for most of her life.) Either way, the song culminates in some astounding ‘money notes’ which Ms. Sanchez definitely makes the most of, to striking effect! Subsequently, she electrifies with “Children Won’t Listen”, at the end of which she wistfully contends, “Children can only grow from something you love, to something you lose…” Shortly after, she thrills (and chills) us all over again with her intense interpretation of “The Last Midnight” (—and given the state of many recent headlines, this one takes on a completely new resonance of heightened dread, which you might not fully grasp until you hear the lyrics.)
One More Productions” Co-Founder and L.A. Times 2017 Theater “Woman Of The Year” again triumphantly returns to the ‘Gem Stage” in the pivotal role of “The Bakers’ Wife”, while Bryan Fraser also gives us a superior turn as her hapless (at times, overwhelmed) husband, “The Baker. This sense of ‘quiet desperation’ enhances his relatability and likeability significantly. Beyond simply performing side-by-side or harmonizing together in many scenes, “The Baker” and “His Wife” are an honest-to-goodness team—vocally and dramatically, and as such, this is one of those rare theatrical cases where it’s hard to separate one performance from the other as they’re so reliant on one another. Their conundrum might not be driving ALL of the action, but it certainly strongly influences all of it. Following their opening descant, the pair’s argument-set-to-music “Maybe They’re Really Magic”, in which they disingenuously swap Jack’s cow-as-white-as-milk for some ‘magic’ beans—which, for all they know, are worthless, really establishes their place in the story, cementing their relationship with a shared song. This is followed up with the bubbly “It Takes Two” as they at last realize, if they are to attain their goal—it absolutely must be together! Individually, the pair do have some successes post-intermission, given the often-impassioned conflicts Act Two suddenly brings about. Such is the case with Ms. Cassesso’s turn during “Moments In The Woods”–the Baker’s Wife’s ode to moral ambiguity as it regards matrimonial fidelity. (This one is well-worth waiting for!) Also gifted with a facility for sublime singing, Fraser gives a stirring rendition of “No More” (arguably the emotional centerpiece of the entire show) permeating it with both the vocal potency and poignant eloquence it requires, as this befuddled ‘everyman’ desperately tries to make sense of the often unlikely, often outlandish circumstances surrounding him (then again, aren’t we all at least a little bit these days?!) Count this song an unexpected showstopper in its own right!
Contributing her supreme acting chops and vocal in the role of “Cinderella”, is Erika Baldwin, another worthily distinguished presence at “The Gem”. Her sung “soliloquy”, “On The Steps Of The Palace” is a genuine highlight; then, once the second half of the show (and all its plot complications) are in full-swing, she gives us her finest moment—leading the poignant, “No One Is Alone”. Hearing it, you’re bound to realize why she was the perfect choice for this exact role–it’s a moving and mesmerizing intermezzo and could be reason enough to run out and see this production ASAP! Courtney Hays also does an outstanding job as the beleaguered Damsel-in-Distress/Princess-In-A-Tower, “Rapunzel”. What’s more, Lorton has resurrected a previously cut number placing it back into the score, titled “Our Little World”—a delightful duet between the Witch and her surrogate ‘daughter’ with the hair as yellow as corn. Giving as it does a fuller understanding of Rapunzel (and her relationship with her insufferably overbearing ‘mother’/captor,) it is brilliantly delivered by Sanchez and Hays, easily ranking it as still another first act bright spot (and heard here, one wonders why it was ever cut to begin with!) Likewise, Matthew Rangel is “Jack” (–yeah, the one who climbed the beanstalk!) Rangel also has a fairly potent voice and magnificent expressiveness which he puts to superb use in relating ‘Giant’s In The Sky”—Jack’s tongue-twisting, rapid-fire, chanson concerning his exploits atop that infamous vine and those he met there. Another youthful force-to-be-reckoned with is Savannah Clayton as “Little Red Ridinghood”. Clayton too, has a remarkable voice that perfectly matches her energy and sharp wit, much along the lines of a young Andrea McArdle (of “Annie” fame.) She virtually ‘hits one out of the fairy-tale theme-park’ conveying her “I Know Things Now”, making this a real standout early on. Later, she proves similarly – affecting—but in an entirely different way–giving us a vulnerable “little girl lost” quality with her part in “No One Is Alone” (easily the most recognizable—and moving offering in the whole show!) Yllary Cajahuaringa also does an above-board job as Jack’s harried mother. Ms. Cajahuaringa is herself a bona-fide vocal powerhouse, which she validates right off with her part in the prelude “Into The Woods”, affording her verses a refreshing ‘musicality’, which adds a pleasant melodiousness and vibrance to what is essentially an expositionary interlude.
Nick Seigel pulls double-duty as both “Cinderella’s Prince” and the big, bad–and brawny, “Wolf”. More subtly suggestive rather than anything overtly salacious or threatening, as part of this latter role he gives us a disarmingly suave execution of “Hello Little Girl”, bathed in bright red light which confer just a note of lasciviousness to the song’s subtext as well as a foreshadowing of the ‘bloodbath’ he intends for the lass once he catches up to her at her “Grandmother’s house”. Meanwhile, Haden Mangum makes for a very dashing (and at times, even balletic) “Rapunzel’s Prince”–and he too is no slouch in the singing department either. Together, the “Princes” unite for a tuneful game of ‘one-upmanship’ called “Agony” and its ensuing reprise. In the first, they compare their frustrations over trying to win over two very different fairytale Princesses: “Cinderella” (Who keeps running away from her Prince,) while the other, “Rapunzel”, is kept in a near-impossible to surmount tower. However, in ‘Part Two’ once the ‘objects’ of their desire have been won–and the pair discover that their now-wives are actually flesh-and-blood people and not the ‘visions’ they initially pursued (and that their marriages require tangible effort from all of them,) we find that these two crowned-heads have instead turned their short attention-spans to new conquests, namely “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”. (“I was raised to be charming…not sincere” her Prince tells “Cinderella” at one point.) Calling all the shots through it all (or at least most of it,), is James Scognamillo as the show’s genial “Narrator” and also “The Mysterious Man”, (who may just have some connection to the Baker and the curse he’s been placed under.) It’s also in this ‘enigmatic’ alternate guise that he particularly impresses, singing the affecting counterpoint to Fraser’s “Baker” in the course of their late-in-the-show duet, “No More”.
Lighting Designer, Jon Hyrkas makes laudable use of the new State-of-the Art digital lighting that the theater has recently acquired and the production flourishes all the more for it. Over and above bathing the on-stage happenings in a plethora of fresh colors and shades, he’s been able to interject several cutting-edge lighting effects as well. To enhance the overall ‘murkiness’ of the woods, he judiciously employs some awesome ‘horror-movie’ back lighting here and there with tremendous success, such as in the midst of “I Know Things Now”, when “Red Ridinghood” recounts the surreal nightmare of being swallowed alive along with her “Granny”, by the wolf. He also makes inspired use of ‘up lighting’ (placing the lighting element low where it can cascade ‘up’, casting otherworldly shadows from exotic angles, hence adding the intrinsic ‘feel’ of the stage being one large “Story Book” illustration. Yet by far his most spectacular achievement is the incredible specialized lighting/projection effect he’s created to accompany each of the encroaching Giantess’s thunderous “footsteps” which are seen and viscerally ‘felt’ all through the Gem’s auditorium. (Give this one a giant WOW!) Make-up designer Brian Bolanos has comparably concocted some dynamic special make-up effects—especially for the Witch and the Wolf! He even manages to gracefully finesse one of the libretto’s trickier requirements: Once the curse is ‘reversed’ the Witch instantly becomes pretty again, but (to her dismay) powerless. This on-stage ‘transformation’ is achieved cleverly and effortlessly right before our eyes, just prior to the big act break, “Ever After”.
Complementing his make-up designs is Wig Designer Alan Collin’s fanciful wigs—from the Witch’s scraggly white mop to her silky brunette tresses when she suddenly ‘youth-ens’, to the equally shaggy grey-white mane and matching beard sported by the “Mysterious Man” as he pops in and out of the goings-on (not to mention Rapunzel’s profuse—near mind boggling—Saffron-blonde hair!) Each is just this side of ‘over-the-top’ (no pun intended) but they aid so much in ‘fleshing out’ these characters we all know and love from our younger days. Costume Designer Luis Cornejo has also truly outdone himself this time with some thoroughly breathtaking costumes—sometimes extravagantly elegant, at others expertly homespun, and on a few occasions, even a bit surprising. Cinderella’s golden ballgown (–and matching ‘slippers pure as gold’–) are nothing short of dazzling. Then there’s the Wolf’s black leather vest and ‘harness’ along with a matching pair of leather chaps (—the effect is both lecherous and offhandedly chic at the same time) or “Little Red Ridinghood’s” gingham dress she wears under her infamous red cape and hood, before trading that in for a snazzy ‘wolf-skin’ stole. It’s no exaggeration either to state that Set Designer Wally Huntoon has surpassed his previous ‘personal bests” too, with the adroit and functional set, starting with the five free-standing set pieces that serve in place of a formal ‘curtain’, which slyly spell-out the word “Woods” in a highly stylized ‘tree-branch’ design. Once the show begins, they revolve to also serve as backdrops for the assorted ‘houses’ of the Baker, Jack and his Mother, and Cinderella.
It’s more than just ‘wishful thinking’ to say that this new production at “The Gem” is like a wish come true! Having officially opened on Saturday, March 5th, “Into The Woods” will play through Sunday, March 27th, 2022, at “The Gem Theatre”– located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, CA. Show-times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM, with added Saturday Matinees at 2:00 PM on March 12th & 19th (There will be a special post-performance “talk back” with the cast and crew on Friday, March 11th.) Tickets may be obtained by calling “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, by logging onto: http://www.theGemoc.com , or visiting the “Gem Theatre” box-office in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM . Special discounts for Seniors (60+) and Children (12 and under) are available for this engagement.
Production photos by Ron Lyon of “Ron Lyon Photo”, courtesy of “One More Productions” www.theGEMoc.com ; Special thanks to Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Dan Baird, Tad Fujioka, Ron Lyon and to the cast and crew of “One More Productions” 2022 production of “Into The Woods” for making this story possible.