Review: Into the Woods

Into the Woods playbillThey put up a chalkboard in the lobby of the Laura Pels theater, so theatergoers at the new Roundabout/Fiasco production of Into the Woods can share their own “I wish” fantasies. Last night I noticed someone had written “A Broadway transfer!” Understandable, because it’s always great to have Sondheim shows back on Broadway. Plus this is a can-do, cheerful, likable production, and the audience seemed delighted with it. But seriously: the intimate Laura Pels is already too big for this homemade production. Let’s not ruin it completely by taking it to Broadway, all right?

Here’s what I mean by that: Fiasco is an ensemble theater group that puts on inventive but bare-bones productions of classics. A pair of curtains on a rod, for example, represent ballgowns; a few fluttery slips of paper become a flock of birds. I’d previously seen their phenomenal production of Cymbeline: their accessible, familial, collaborative energy worked beautifully in bringing Shakespeare’s text to life. Now they’ve turned their creative attention toward Into the Woods, which is definitely having a Moment since the movie’s debut a few weeks ago. This production couldn’t be further from the lush, star-studded treatment the movie gets, but to be honest I liked it even better than the film. Well, for the most part. There were definitely a few problems.

Everyone who reads this blog is familiar with Into the Woods, I suppose, but just in case you aren’t: this 1980s musical — one of Sondheim’s most popular — is a mishmash of a number of fairy tales including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. The first act is mostly light and entertaining; the second act is far darker and sadder. It’s a bit tricky to pull off that change in tone, and I know some critics complained about that when it came to the movie. (Didn’t bother me.)

This Into the Woods works mostly because its cast is so well suited to the material. There is lots of nifty double-casting in the ten-person ensemble. My favorite was that the actress who plays Little Red (Emily Young) also doubles as Rapunzel. They also eliminate the role of the storyteller and narrate the story themselves. Probably appropriate that there’s no one singular storyteller, because Fiasco feels like an old-fashioned acting troupe who have gathered to tell us a story. (In fact, according to the playbill, Jessie Austrian, who plays the Baker’s Wife, is married to Noah Brody, Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf. How cute! They really are familial!) Fiasco also establishes a rapport with the audience at the beginning of the show, which continues throughout. Meaning: this Into the Woods features a sprinkle of audience participation. (But don’t worry. It’s not that distracting.)

As for the performances themselves, they’re all pretty strong, except possibly Jennifer Mudge as the witch. She doesn’t quite have the necessary charisma, comic timing, or even a believably evil persona. Her transformation into gorgeousness is certainly not a stretch, though. I think she’d have done better as Cinderella or Little Red, to be honest.

James Lapine’s book is still very, very clever and witty (though I’ve still never seen a production that captures its humor quite as well as the original Broadway video does). And Mr. Sondheim is in even better form. When you know a show by heart, sometimes the lyrics become so ingrained in your brain that you barely hear them anymore. (That was the case when I saw the movie a few weeks ago.) Last night, though — perhaps because of the production’s inventiveness — I heard them with a fresh ear, and lyrics like “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true/Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too” seemed especially poetic and moving. I don’t know that it’s his greatest work as a composer, but boy are there some lovely melodies. Particularly “No More”, which was an emotional highlight of this production. Though this production doesn’t really do Sondheim justice, musically. Save for piano, the company plays all the instruments themselves, and the resulting sound is fairly thin. Plus most of the actors are stronger at acting than they are at singing. This production isn’t going to present you with a transcendent aural experience.

The appeal of this kind of production (as far as I’m concerned) is that you could see a dynamic Into the Woods without the Broadway trappings. I got my tickets through my roommate, who has a Hiptix account. At $25 it’s a fantastic deal. At $35-45, it would still probably be a pretty good deal. But if you’re paying more than $50 it might start to feel like you’re paying more than your money’s worth.

My grade: B
Ticket price: $25 (Hiptix)
Worth it: Yes
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50