Sunday, February 1, 2015

INTO THE WOODS: Careful the Tale You Tell

The Fiasco Theater’s production of Into The Woods, the suddenly ubiquitous Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical from 1987 now on view in its live theatrical incarnation at the Laura Pels Theatre, comes close but ultimately fails to capture the show’s complex balance between childlike naiveté and grown-up moral ambiguity.

A mashup of several well-known fairy tales, along with a new anchor story invented by Mr. Lapine, a part of Into The Woods always seemed to me to inhabit the same transitional landscape that is occupied by middle school-aged children, clinging to childhood while lurching toward young adulthood. As Red Riding Hood succinctly puts it, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot/And a little bit not…”

The young adolescent side of the tale is represented by Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (of beanstalk fame). As performed, respectively and quite well by Emily Young and Patrick Mulryan, these characters take themselves as seriously as any young adolescent would, so that their lines have a Roald Dahl-ish glow. (That’s a real compliment; no writer understands the pre-teen the way that Mr. Dahl did). Thus, we have Little Red Riding Hood singing:  
                                   Into the woods
                                   To bring some bread
                                   To Granny who
                                   Is sick in bed.
                                   Never can tell
                                   What lies ahead.
                                   For all that I know,
                                   She’s already dead.

And Jack’s heart-felt farewell to his friend Milky White, the cow (played here with unabashed whimsy by Andy Grotelueschen), includes the lines:
                                   Some day I’ll buy you back.
                                   I’ll see you soon again.
                                   I hope that when I do,
                                   It won’t be on a plate.

These are funny lines, but in order to be effective, they must be delivered without a trace of irony or tongue-in-cheek.

The good news is that this is the part that the Fiasco company and directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld get right, along with a wonderful makeshift set design by Derek McLane that gives the production the feel of one of Jo March's plays in Little Women, right down to the homespun costumes by Whitney Locher and a stageful of props that seem to have come straight out of Grandma’s attic. 

The problem lies with the adult side of the production, where—to cadge from something the Witch sings—the performances are not good; they’re not bad; they’re just nice. 

Even though roles are drawn from fairy tale characters (or in the case of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, fairy tale-like characters), we’ve still have to be drawn into the story. The relationship between the Baker (Mr. Steinfeld) and his wife (Jessie Austrian) needs to be a sympathetic one, so that when she falls into the arms of Cinderella’s Prince (Mr. Brody) and is later killed, we should be disturbed and moved (as we were when the roles were played in the original Broadway production by Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason). We should also find the Witch (Jennifer Mudge) to be a psychologically complicated character, a monstrous mother to Rapunzel and a scary presence throughout.

With this production, we have individuals who can sing well enough, but they always seem to be performing in rehearsal mode, having never figured out how to bring their characters to life. The charming homespun quality that works so well in support of the fractured fairy tales loses its effectiveness when we move into the morally murky grownup world.  And the gimmicks that were charming become cloying, starting with having the actors playing musical instruments (when have we seen that before?, and unnecessary, since Matt Castle does a whiz-bang job accompanying everyone on the center-stage upright piano). There is also the silliness embodied in having Mr. Brody and Mr. Grotelueschen take on the roles of Cinderella’s stepsisters, using a visual joke that became an instant classic (so why repeat it?) when Carol Burnett did her spoof of Gone With The Wind back in 1976. 

Into the Woods is a rich musical that is certainly worthy of revisiting, and it is strong enough to stand up to different interpretations. But let’s give the last word to Mr. Sondheim, who sums things up nicely through the voice of the Witch during the show’s finale:

                                   Careful the tale you tell.
                                   That is the spell.
                                   Children will listen.

And so will we, if the tale is told with proper care.  

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