New York City Theater
"Into the Woods"
Laura Pels Theater
Overheard in the Gents after viewing the film version of “Into the Woods”: Man #1: “What did you think of the movie?” Man #2: “Too much singing.”
There you have the difference between stage and film musicals. On stage, you see the instrumentalists, you buy into the illusion, you expect songs to further the action. In films, which are more realistic, the plot usually halts while Carmen Miranda waves her bananas.
The film version of the Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine is elaborate and filled with special effects. Compare it to the latest stage revival, a stripped-down version by the inventive Fiasco Theater. More to the point, there are no illusions here. Props and costumes are onstage from the start. Doubling and tripling actors also play instruments, forging themselves into an ensemble that gets to the essentials of a story about having to work together to defeat evil.
On Derek McLane’s cleverly cluttered set, a tall ladder serves as Rapunzel’s tower, two male actors become Cinderella’s stepsisters by holding a curtain rod of dresses in front of themselves, cow’s milk comes in a baby bottle, a dressmaker’s dummy becomes a tree, the wolf carries his stuffed head on a plaque and the set is framed by piano strings and soundboards. It’s like being in a giant playground or a forgotten attic.
In a production that is not only more imaginative but more pertinent than previous versions, Cinderella, Red Ridinghood (an hilarious Emily Young), the beanstalk-climbing Jack (well sung by Patrick Mulryan) and the un-named Baker and his Wife go into the woods for their own purposes. Each has to satisfy “the Witch next door”; together they must defeat the Giant who’s stalking and destroying the land.
One key lyric is “there are rights and wrongs / and in-betweens,” not one extreme or the other. “No more quests,” “No one lives in the woods,” “No One is Alone” – the repetition of “no” negates easy answers. When all the relationships have been sorted out, with the help of the Mysterious Man / Father figure (“The farther you run / The more you feel undefined”), their return to face the world of reality is essential.
If Andy Grotelueschen as a cow, a prince and an evil stepsister nearly steals the evening, the entire cast, while all their voices aren’t high caliber, shine under the crisp and inventive direction of Noah Brody (also the randy Wolf) and Ben Steinfeld (moving as the Baker). Eliminating the original’s excessive cross-overs (the “midnight” sections), also helps bring the show into clear focus.
Caught in-between childhood and adulthood, much as we try to repress the past, it remains with us always, its comic joys and tragic fears ever at our sides. At the performance seen, three little girls in the row in front of mine were transfixed, even during the darker tones of Act Two. It’s as if they were home, snug in bed, listening to their parents read these tales, heeding the advice the Baker’s Wife offers to her husband:
“Calm the child,” she says. “Tell him the story of how it all happened.” We’re listening.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 3, 2015