Posted by: Revned 12:27 am EST 11/18/22

Having finally seen the very successful Broadway revival of INTO THE WOODS, I’m finding myself a bit of an outlier. Although the production delivers on several levels, I take issue with many aspects of the direction.

The pluses are clear and have been well documented. The score is beautifully played by a big orchestra, and the unusually good sound design (I was in the mezzanine) ensures that all of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics are clearly heard. The low-tech special effects and puppetry are ingenious and engage the audience’s imagination. It’s mostly well-cast with top-notch musical theatre talents who seem to love the material and are clearly having fun; the show has a winningly ebullient energy. Some of that energy, though, feels misapplied; much of the direction is crass and tasteless, emphasizing zany humor at the expense of the script’s grace and subtlety.

The musical’s aesthetic is delicately balanced between wit and sentiment, fantasy and satire. But delicacy doesn’t seem to be a part of Lear de Bessonet’s arsenal. The eclectic costume design is part of the problem. What designer wouldn’t be thrilled by the unique challenge and opportunity this material offers: to conjur up a beautiful and richly atmospheric, magical fairy-tale world? This version looks like the designer spent a few hours in costume storage at a community theatre, searching for anything that might sort-of work for each character, with no defining aesthetic or any sense of style or period. Cinderella, for example, looks much as we remember her, and might almost be comfortable in the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, but who are her stepsisters supposed to be?? Every time they came onstage they took me out of the story. Some of this would have been excusable at Encores!, where shows are put together quickly on limited tech budgets, but the move to Broadway warranted an enhanced design.

Most of the actors have been either allowed or encouraged to mug shamelessly to the audience. The performances are highly physical, with obvious, choreographed gestures that border on semaphore, designed to hammer home the humor and underline anything that can be taken as a joke. Lines meant to be delivered to each other are telegraphed out to the audience instead, to the point where it sometimes feels like the characters are being burlesqued rather than played honestly. I actually lost count of the number of crotch gags. Yes, crotch gags: this might have been appropriate for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, but INTO THE WOODS is a subtler, more elegant work. Part of my enjoyment of the show in previous productions was the satisfaction of picking up on the subtle wit in the lyrics; the words do the work if you’re listening, and you don’t need to be hit over the head. Even the saddest and most emotionally painful moments in Act One (such as Jack’s reaction to the death of Milky White) are played cartoonishly for laughs this time around, which makes the transition to the darker and more serious tone of Act Two even more jarring than usual.

The two Princes are a case in point. Remembering the original production, the humor grew from the idea that they first appear to be pretty much the idealized heroes we remember from the old stories and Disney movies; as we get to know them, their vanity and shallowness are gradually revealed, culminating in the devastatingly hilarious moment in Act Two when we realize they are transferring their allegiances to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, leaving us effectively disillusioned. In this production, from the first moment Creel and Karl prance onstage, they are telegraphing “look at what fun we’re having playing these ridiculous nincompoops.” Blue chip performers both, they do it with flair and panache, so they get away with it. But they’re making fun of the characters rather than inhabiting them. The cat is out of the bag from the get go and there’s no journey. I blame de Bessonet.

The original benefitted tremendously from the inclusion of two real teenagers as Little Red and Jack. Ferland and Wright brought effortless simplicity to the roles, a guilelessness that was invaluable in sustaining the sense of childlike wonder that makes a fairy tale poignant. Cole Thompson works awfully hard as Jack, and looks and sounds too mature. Katy Geraghty is a savvy comedienne with lots of clever ideas; she nails laugh after laugh, but she’s clearly an adult commenting all-too-knowingly on the material.

There are nice surprises along the way. Brian d’Arcy James and David Patrick Kelly give two of the more honest and grounded performances; “No More” is a high point. Stephanie J. Block is allowed to mug egregiously in Act One, but then comes through with a lovely “Moments in the Woods.” I had questioned whether Krysta Rodriguez would be the right choice for Cinderella, since I think of her as a belter and have seen her play harder-edged characters, but her legit voice proves lovely and she does her best to keep it real. But the slapstick pratfalls are overdone; again, direction.

Montego Glover is an exciting singer and commanding storyteller; she impresses mightily as the old crone in Act One. After she loses her powers and regains her beauty, she seems a bit unmoored, with no help from the generic evening gown. The drag-queen hair toss is another cheap laugh that violates the style and tone of the show. But like previous Witches, Glover is struggling with an insufficiently defined character. Just who is the Witch? For most of Act Two, she is haranguing the others, trying to get them to sacrifice Jack to the wrath of Mrs. Giant—the pragmatic but inhumane solution. But then at the end she turns around and sings a song about the importance of taking care of the children? Is “Children Will Listen” really sung by the Witch, or are we to intuit it as being sung by the Actress Who Played the Witch?

This brings me to another issue with the show itself. Somehow I’ve always felt that the overall impact of INTO THE WOODS is a bit less than the sum of its parts. I love it because the parts are so brilliant and beautiful. But it’s almost as if Sondheim and Lapine lost confidence in their thesis before the end. At the conclusion of Act One, we get the traditional Happily Ever After, tied up in a pretty bow. And then Act Two seems meant to puncture the dream, to show us what might happen if these Grimm Brothers archetypes were real, complex, flawed people. Life is more complicated, messier, and scarier than traditional fairy tales would have us believe, the writers seem to be saying, and it’s a mistake to think a story can be wrapped up tidily with a facile moral. But then they turn around and make that very mistake themselves at the end of the second act: bringing all the dead characters back onstage, reprising the title song, and tacking on a final “message” number that, however lovely, can sound sanctimonious because it doesn’t really grow out of the story that came before. Could they have left us with the messiness and the loss and the unanswered questions? That might have been more honest… but it probably wouldn’t have felt like the way to end a Broadway musical. INTO THE WOODS gives the impression of wanting to be a little more subversive than it is. But the piece succeeds in revealing surprising humanity and intriguing contradictions in iconic characters. With more discerning guidance, this production’s supremely talented cast could have done that better.

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