Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Into the Woods Reconceived in Its Purest Form
In 1968, Paul Sills, co-founder and original director of The Second City, developed Story Theatre, which was both a specific show and a method for the application of improvisational theatre techniques to storytelling on stage. Employing minimal scenery and non-specific all-purpose costumes, spreading narration among all members of the company, performing a collection of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm recounted with an adult sensibility, deploying actors in multiple roles who would switch gender and species in the flash of an eye, having all the actors remain on stage throughout and performing a collection of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm recounted with an adult sensibility, Story Theatre delightfully restored cultural resonance to ancient folk tales.
Skipping forward to today, the Fiasco Theater company under the aegis of the McCarter Theatre has "reimagined" the remarkable Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Into the Woods in a production which restores improvisational storytelling style to the mainstream American stage in glorious fashion. This production makes it startlingly clear that Into the Woods completely embraces the form and substance of Story Theatre. By brilliantly employing (and lightly embellishing) the Story Theatre performing style, directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have given us Into the Woods in its purest and most affecting form.
The story mixes together variations of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel (with a soupçon of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty), and a new story of a witch and her curse on a childless baker and his wife. Although it contains the gore and grimness of the Brothers Grimm, the first act is essentially ebullient and ends happily ... well not for Cinderella's stepsisters, but still. However, in the second act, as ruination rains down on their world, everyone suffers the dire consequences of the actions that were undertaken in pursuit of happily ever.
One property on stage is a pair of kitchen curtains which are hung side by side on a wooden rod. Noah Brody (co-director) and Andy Grotelueschen, who play Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince, instantly become Lucinda and Florinda, Cinderella's stepsisters (beard and moustaches notwithstanding) just by holding the rod in front of them and allowing our brains to magically "see" the curtains as dresses. Although, of course, they do much more than that. Brody and Grotelueschen also play the Wolf and Jack's cow Milky White (all respectively). Both actors are delightfully goofy. Brody's Wolf (enacted while holding a handsome wolf's head in front of him) is menacing and more sensual without the mangy genital apparatus with which Lapine decorated him in the original Broadway production. Grotelueschen is certainly more interesting than the plastic mannequin which stood in for Milky White then.
Jennifer Mudge (Witch), Jessie Austrian (Baker's Wife), Claire Karpen (Cinderella, Granny), Emily Young (Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel), Liz Hayes (Cinderella's Stepmother, Jack's Mother), and (co-director) Ben Steinfeld (Baker), Patrick Mulryan (Jack, Steward) and Paul L. Coffey (Mysterious Man) are all appealing, imperfect character-storytellers with whom we can relate.
The vocals are not as steadily on-key or as powerful as in earlier productions, but the voices are pleasant and the lyric expression flows with an naturalistic ease from character, dialogue and story which enhances our involvement and sympathy. Although occasionally throughout the proceedings an actor who is not participating in a scene will play another instrument, the musical accompaniment is largely provided by solo piano by music director Matt Castle. The piano is center stage facing the audience as we enter the theatre, and then is moved about the stage throughout the performance. The single piano arrangements are excellent and fitting for the style of this production. They allow for comfortable vocals which blend in seamlessly with the spoken dialogue. The easy audibility of the lyrics is a not inconsiderable bonus.
Costume designer Whitney Locher has provided uncluttered, airily attractive, neutral costumes. They are augmented for actors' multiple roles by accessories (hats shawls, capes). They have a look that is more classic than contemporary. The set design by Derek McLane constitutes an open stage with a wooden floor and various objects (i.e., tailors' dress form, high stepladder, grandfather clock) strewn about the stage that are used at various points throughout the musical. Nine small chandeliers hang high above the stage. We might be at a rehearsal in a studio or on a theatre stage. Locher and McLane have made major contributions to bolstering the Story Theatre style of this production.
It would be most difficult to over praise the beautiful music and brilliant lyrics provided by Stephen Sondheim. The poignancy and observant wit of "No One is Alone" is but one of a host of examples of Sondheim at the top of his form. James Lapine's reworking of the fairy tales and his "new" tale match Sondheim's brilliance and wit every step of the way. His complex integration of the stories, both in terms of plot and themes, is mind boggling. However, writers are not always the best directors of their own works. James Lapine weighted down his original Into the Woods both with suffocating visual elements and portentousness. Although the stellar cast contributed many fine performances, only Joanna Gleason (as the Baker's Wife) was able to break through Lapine's heavy handed staging to deliver a transporting performance. (I base these observations on my memories of the original Broadway production which I saw shortly after its opening, and a recent re-viewing of the taped on-stage production directed by Lapine with the original cast which was televised on PBS' American Playhouse.)
This is an Into the Woods which will delight, thrill, and surprise even its most devoted and adoring fans.
Into the Woods continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday 7:30 pm - except 5/2 at 7 pm & no performances. 6/2 & 6/9; Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Mats: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through June 9, 2013, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.
Into the Woods music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine; directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Photo by T. Charles Erickson