A light-weight, witty version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic fairy tale musical.
By Joel Benjamin
The Roundabout Theatre Company has imported the Fiasco Theater’s production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods, the sophisticated show that turns fairy tales inside out. The question is why? Why another Into the Woods when it was staged recently by the Public Theater and was also made into a fairly successful film? The Fiasco Theater’s production has some new twists, for sure, a lighter touch than any previous version. That alone is reason enough for this more bare-boned version which reveals just how well constructed this show is. This production, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld (both also members of the hard-working, reduced-sized cast), has the feel of a combination of spontaneous let’s-put-on-a-show verve with the eagerness of first-rate summer stock, displaying an enthusiasm and joy that makes sitting through this long show a breeze. The directors and artistic collaborators take a lighthearted, winking approach to the material. Most of the time this works, but too often it pits the directors’ self-indulgent wit up against Sondheim/Lapine’s, sometimes threatening to become the Brody/Steinfeld—with more than a touch of John Doyle—Into the Woods.
This staging has no particular context, not helped by Derek McLane’s extravagant set which turns the Pels stage into a piano repair shop/antique boutique/lighting store for no overriding reason other than the physical beauty of piano innards, dusty tchotchkes and ornate chandeliers. It’s the whimsy factor and not any organic connection with the libretto or the score that’s the guiding force here. True, a tall ladder is imaginatively used as Rapunzel’s lair, but beyond that the musical occurs within a surreal setting. We’re not in an insane asylum, nor on a stage with a theater troupe about to do this complicated musical. The actors race about this set, wearing Whitney Locher’s inspired costumes, often skillfully doubling up characters with head-spinning speed, such as Mr. Brody and Andy Groteleuschen’s transformation from Cinderella’s step-sisters into the princes wooing them. However, the mincing, skipping steps the men use to personify these ladies bordered on the offensive.
There were some lovely touches, such as the use of pieces of folded sheet music, artfully fluttered, to portray birds and turning Jack’s sad cow, Milky White—usually portrayed as an inert statue—into a person with a cowbell around his neck (Mr. Grotelueschen), although a little bit of his shtick went a long way. The actors also play instruments such as the dulcimer adding some heft to Matt Castle’s terrific piano playing, but that John Doyle gimmick has become a tired cliché.
The cast performed with unflagging energy and intelligence. Emily Young’s Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel (her head fetchingly covered a long mop of yellow yarn) had spunk and youthful wonder. As a bizarre combination of Cinderella and Ridinghood’s Granny, Claire Karpen showed range and wit. Jessie Austrian’s Baker’s Wife caught the combination of practicality and romance of this sturdy lady. Jennifer Mudge was particularly fine as the central character, the Witch. She humanized this woman and was touching when, transformed into a mortal beauty, she lost her powers. Mr. Steinfeld’s Baker had a lovely boyish quality. The Mystery Man who gives unbidden advice to several others, was played by Paul L. Coffey who made sense out of an odd, almost arbitrary role. Mr. Brodie, his handle-bar mustache gaily twitching, made his three characters (Lucinda, the lascivious Wolf & Cinderella’s Prince) distinct. Mr. Grotelueschen’s hang-dog demeanor gave dimension to Milky White and his other two characters. Patrick Mulryan caught the naivete and wonder of Jack.
Into the Woods – through April 12, 2015
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th St., between 6th & 7th Avenues New York, NY
Tickets and information: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, one intermission