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Into The Woods

Emily Young and Noah Brody in a scene from Fiasco Theater’s “Into the Woods” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

                                      by David Schultz

When this brilliant musical first hit the boards in 1987 it seemed a fresh take on all the fairy tale bedtime stories we were told as tiny tots. A mishmash of various characters including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack & the beanstalk, Rapunzel, and a vengeful witch. As the years have gone by, it’s almost thirty years since its debut; this light entertainment by the master has only gained in its reputation. Various revivals in 1987 and in 2012 have kept this musical in constant replay. Need I mention the blockbuster film from last season to hammer in my point?

The talented Fiasco Theater mounted a bare-bones lets put-on-a-show version at the McCarter Theatre in 2013. It is this very same minimalist production, all ten performers playing various parts with excessive gusto that has hit Broadway yet again. The sparse stage is set with one piano, various musical instruments strewn throughout, picked up at key moments and played by the performers.

Derek McLane craftily designs the set with long ropes that surround the stage, floor to ceiling, that bring to mind both a forest and the keys to a piano. To wit, the left and right sides of the stage setting are strewn with various parts of broken piano parts. The atmospheric lighting design by Christopher Akerlind sets a moody hue to the proceedings.

Photos by Joan Marcus

The production starts organically with the troupe slowly coming onstage with the theater still brightly lit. The sense of friends coming together to meet and greet each other co-mingled with ’lets put on a show’ gusto sets the mood. The stage is strewn with various ephemera; an antique dress form, a ladder, everyday items that mysteriously and magically become a tree, a tower… quick change clothing options abound. Window curtain rods double as dresses for the ugly stepsisters. The ingenuity runs rampant with all manner of everyday items turning into magical items in quick succession. It is the ultimate acting class on high, with sly wit and the overeager zeal to top the last effect to an even greater visual pun.  

This alas becomes repetitive, and drags the evening into a very long first act.. This production, tries to please the audience at all costs, and makes the piece, god forbid, cute and cuddly. To wit, the woman sitting next to me started quietly humming along to some of the songs in the show. The darker second act does slow down, finally with an attempt at giving depth and meaning to the more complex issues at hand. But the change in tone is even more jarring than usual. The performers acquit themselves well, some better than others. On the plus side, you can hear and savor all the musicality that Sondheim has carefully placed in the work. All the words sung are perfectly enunciated.  This counts big time with this tricky complicated wordsmith. If you can’t hear the delightful rhymes and the cadence of the songs, all is lost. As the baker and his wife, Ben Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian make an innocuous and bland couple. Better served to the piece actress Emily Young brings spunk and zest to her dual roles as Rapunzel, and most especially to her reading of Little Red Ridinghood. Playing Steward and a strappingly tall Jack, actor Patrick Mulryan dazzles with a beautiful voice. Actress Claire Karpen brings to life both Granny and a contemplative Cinderella to full plumage with a snarky wit. Playing multiple parts Noah Brody essays ugly stepsister Lucinda, Wolf, Cinderella’s Prince to great comical effect. If his voice were stronger and more potent he would have more impact. His voice strained at various times throughout. Playing assorted roles as varied as Milky White, stepsister Florinda, and Rapunzel’s Prince, actor Andy Grotelueschen practically steals the show with his rendition of one of the preening Princes, and most especially of the cow Milky White. MOO indeed. As Cinderella’s Stepmother and Jack’s Mother, actress Liz Hayes brings unexpected pathos to her roles. The pianist for the entire production, Matt Castle is masterfully at the helm. And topping the list Jennifer Mudge pulls out all the stops as the Witch. Her renditions of some of Mr. Sondheim’s best loved songs in this work are well crafted and given the full gravitas needed to make the musical soar.     

With all this great talent on board, it hard to grouse and be a curmudgeon, would that the powers that be had decided to give a darker, more contemplative tone to these Woods. Instead what we get is a hyperactive, wound too tight, overeager directive to cram in everything including the kitchen sink, hoping to re-invent the work yet again. But more often than not, little artsy business on the sidelines drew attention to the artifice involved.    

The Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/ Laura Pels Theatre

111 West 46th Street

(212) 719-1300    Playing through April 12th