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Into the Woods

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Emily Young and Noah Brody.
Photo by Joan Marcus

A story may be a powerful thing, but the way it's told often has an even greater impact. This has always been one of the chief lessons of the 1987 James Lapine–Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, which mashes up a handful of famous fairy tales and explores what happens when they're spun first in their contexts and then in ours. But rarely has the point been made more expressly than with the Fiasco Theater production of the show that Roundabout has just opened at its Laura Pels Theatre.

The original medium-size company of 19 has been compressed to 10, most of them playing multiple roles and instruments. There are no sprawling sets; Derek McLane's scenic design crosses an overstuffed attic crossed with the interior of a piano (an actual upright, manned by musical director Matt Castle, sits atop the most complex set piece, a rolling platform). The costumes (by Whitney Locher), too, are simple: beige and white clothing that's augmented by the occasional negligee, curtain rod, stuffed wolf's head, and so on. And directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have ensured that it all unfolds lickety-split.

In short, this is an evening that's about creativity first and foremost: the notion that the act of telling a story naturally supersedes the story itself. And if that's the kind of spin on Into the Woods you're looking for, likely because you already know it inside and out, you will undoubtedly adore this one.

Myself, I can't go quite that far. Let's say... I admired its ambition? There's plenty of that. And because, at its core, it's the traditional show, this Into the Woods is head and shoulders more satisfying than the soulless rethinkings we've seen to date from John Doyle (including, earlier this season, with Classic Stage Company's Allegro). And compared to Timothy Sheader's grotesque revival of the show at the Delacorte Theater in 2012, it's flat-out brilliant. But I'm not convinced it is by any other standard.

The Cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus

For all the fast-paced fun the cast is obviously having, their reading of Lapine's book sticks largely to the surface, never getting original or adventurous in interpretation. (The recent film version, which was quite faithful if imperfect, took more chances.) Rather than use the spare trappings to strip the work down to its essence, the company mostly just does so for gags: This character changes to that one in a blink, this wacky item is used in an unexpected way, that sort of thing. If it doesn't exactly get old, it also doesn't get very deep.

Only Jennifer Mudge, who's cast as the plot-driving, moralizing Witch, appears genuinely invested in treating the show as drama. This is not especially surprising, as Mudge, who last appeared on Broadway in Rocky, has for years (in plays as diverse as The Pavilion and The Big Meal, and plenty of others in between) demonstrated how rich and resourceful a performer she is. And she brings starkly affecting emotions to the Witch, who understands the world better than those around her but is no more immune to its heartbreaks. In the second act, she presents just the naked and organic loss her scenes demand. And she puts forth her songs with intense conviction.

That's good, because she's otherwise not an accomplished singer. Almost no one here is. The finest vocalist is Patrick Mulryan, but his acting as the boy Jack (of Beanstalk and Giant Killer infamy) is incredibly stilted and hollow. (He seems more comfortable in the tinier role of the Steward.) Also high up the musical pecking order is Steinfeld, as the Baker questing for a child, but he has one facial expression (angry) and fewer shadings still during his spoken lines, which does little to make the character the sympathetic center he ought to be.

Better balances are found by Claire Karpen (as Cinderella), Emily Young (an unusually street smart Little Red Riding Hood), and, to a lesser degree, Jessie Austrian as an ultra-laid-back Baker's Wife. At the other end of the spectrum, Andy Grotelueschen distinguishes himself primarily by mugging his way through the role of the cow Milky White, Rapunzel's Prince, and one of Cinderella's stepsisters, and Brody is less believable and more grating as Cinderella's Prince and the other stepsister. (He's okay as the Wolf, but again, you're looking in wry awe at the trophy head he's holding.)

With such poor musical values—the accompaniment, except from Castle, is decent at its best—the play truly becomes the thing, and that's invariably subservient to the presentation. Musicals demand big feelings and often big laughs; Into the Woods absolutely can have them, but this one has neither. When everyone must play several roles, function as the orchestra, and juggle endless piles of props, they have no opportunity to really develop their portrayals, and you're given no fresh air to breathe them in. It may be amazing to watch, but the thrill wears off quickly if you are, as I am, more interested in who these characters are than in how inventive the actors and their directors are.

Plus, after a while, I lost some faith even in them. Parts of the script and score have been rearranged or tweaked, and some lyrics and scenes have been cut entirely; this has, among other things, eliminated at least one character, robbed us of experiencing the vital resolution of others' arcs, and significantly downplayed as a major running theme the gradual evolution of morals both personal and literary—major losses in my book. And when a company stakes so much on its razor-sharp irreverence, it must be airtight, but the idea of costume pieces being essential to character (such as the stepsisters and their mother) and Christopher Akerlind's lights to stage pictures (with the rampaging giant) is too easily jettisoned when it becomes inconvenient.

"Careful the tale you tell / That is the spell," runs a crucial late lyric. It's good advice for everyone, from parents who put themselves too far above their children to artists who put themselves too far above their show. Children may survive that treatment, and Into the Woods easily survives Fiasco's. But it doesn't mean we can't—and shouldn't—wish for more in each case.

Into the Woods
Through March 22
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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