Wednesday, May 22, 2013

theatre review INTO THE WOODS McCarter Theatre, May 5

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is one of the most clever musicals ever written.  Seamlessly weaving together familiar fairy tales that we all grew up with into a musical where the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel all interconnect with each other took two very creative people to pull it off.  So I'm happy to say that the production of the show that is running at the McCarter theatre presented by the Fiasco Theatre Company in a scaled down version with only ten actors, minimal sets and just a piano player adds a whole new creative element to this already creative show.
Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld, and Jennifer Mudge as
The Baker's Wife, The Baker and The Witch
This musical gave Sondheim and Lapine the perfect jumping off point by using already familiar fairy tales to include some of Sondheim's most intricate and humorous rhyme schemes and some of Lapine's funniest and most touching dialogue.  It isn't a far stretch to assume that these well known tales all happened in the same place, and since most of them are set either in the woods or have scenes that take place there, it also seems fitting that the setting of the woods would be the way to connect them all.  But what Sondheim and Lapine also did was to create an entirely original fairy tale, the story of the Baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child as the way to truly bring all of these famous stories together. 

Emily Young as Red Riding Hood and
Noah Body as the Wolf
You see, the baker and his wife live right next door to a Witch.  She tells the couple that she placed a curse on their family and that is why they are unable to have a child.  However, if they wish to have the curse reversed there is a potion that is made up of four items that they can bring to her and the curse will be lifted.  Those four items are Little Red Riding Hood's cape, Jack's cow, Rapunzel's hair and Cinderella's glass slipper.  Of course the ingredients aren't as clearly spelled out when the message is first delivered, instead being told they need "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood,  the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold."  But when the Baker and his wife are sent off to the woods by the Witch to get those items they meet up with the other characters who are also in the woods - Jack on his way to market to sell his cow, Little Red on her way to her grandmother's house, Rapunzel who lives in a tower in the woods and Cinderella who is on her way back from the ball.  They, and the audience, quickly realize where the four required items come from and how ingenious Sondheim and Lapine are to find a way to combine all of these characters and their respective stories into one adventure. 

A lovely use of shadows to portray
Little Red coming to her
Grandmother's house and encountering
the Wolf.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg in creativeness as Sondheim and Lapine also finish the first act with all of the fairy tales coming to the endings we are all familiar with, but adding the line "to be continued" before the curtain falls.   The second acts uses the Giant from Jack's story as a way to not only complicate the fairy tales further, by having the giant wreck havoc on our characters, but also a way to counter the humor and happiness in the first act with more serious overtones including death in the second. Sondheim and Lapine are clearly saying to be careful what you wish for as all wishes that come true may not have the exact type of happiness we originally dreamed they'd have in their happy endings.

The score has some of Sondheim's brightest gems including the ballads "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen" and the character driven pieces "I Know Things Now," "It Takes Two," "Giants in the Sky" and "On the Steps of the Palace."   That song, which Cinderella sings after the Prince spreads pitch on the stairs in order to trap her from fleeing the ball a second time and so she has to decide to either stay stuck in her shoes on the steps of the palace or flee, includes one of Sondheim's most brilliant rhyme schemes.  "You'll just leave him a clue, for example a shoe.  And then see what he'll do.  Now it's he and not you who is stuck with a shoe, in a stew, in the goo, and you've learned something too, something you never knew, on the steps of the palace.

But my two favorite songs in the show are ones that come right after each other "Your Fault" and "Last Midnight."  "Your Fault" is the ultimate Sondheim song in that it not only comments on the characters and the action that has happened before, but also moves the story forward and is all done with some inventive rhyme schemes. And "Last Midnight" is just a fantastic song for the Witch that turns a somewhat traditional waltz melody in 3/4 time on its toes and almost spins out of control.

the entire cast on the magical piano themed set
The original Broadway production of Into the Woods featured a cast of nineteen with three of the cast members playing more than one part.  In this new production, featuring many regular members of the Fiasco Theatre Company, the majority of actors play either multiple parts or play some musical instrument to add to the main solo piano accompaniment.  It gives a nice sense of "storytelling" in the fact that, unlike in the original production, there isn't a single narrator, instead the members of the cast alternate in the narration.  By also having each cast member play more than just one part, they are also in a sense telling the story by adding their voice to more than one character or by providing musical accompaniment.   It gives a wonderful communal feel to the piece, especially sense at most times the actors are always on the stage, listening and watching to the story as it unfolds.

Andy Grotelueschen as Jack's cow, Milky White,
and Patrick Mulryan as Jack
The production, which was co-directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also respectively play the Wolf/Prince Charming and The Baker, have used traditional theatrical devices, like the inventive use of simple prop pieces to allow the story to breathe more easily.  This added room gives more attention to the dialogue and lyrics and less on elaborate costumes and sets that could pull the focus from the lessons learned in the stories.  The overall production reminded me a lot of the recent Broadway hit Peter and the Starcatcher in the overall ability to use actors, simple props, sets and costumes to tell a story to an audience in a most theatrical way.

The cast is all excellent and they all throw themselves into their characters, making sure their stories get told to us.  Matt Castle provides effective piano accompaniment and is also use effectively in a few places in the story. Derek McLane's set design gives the entire set the feel of the inside of a piano with piano wires strung across the back wall and the side walls covered with piano pieces.  It gives a nice focus to the music of the show. Costumes by Whitney Locher are simple yet fun and the lighting by Tim Cryan is also not elaborate.  All of which all allow the story to shine through without any added distractions.  

My only quibbles relate to the fact that some of the cast weren't the best of singers and that some of the humorous lines were too quickly rushed, thus completely losing the punch line. However we did see an early preview of the show so the cast may have figured out the timing better now and this production may be even better than when we saw it.

Still, this is a delightful, witty and enchanting production of one of the most creative and ingenious musicals ever.  The run has been extended to June 9th and I wouldn't be surprised if a NY run of this production is also in the works. 

Official Show Site

Behind the scenes of this production with the cast and directors:

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