Thursday, January 22, 2015

Margin Notes: Into the Woods

Andy Grotelueschen, Emily Young, Ben Steinfeld, Jennifer
Mudge, Claire Karpen, Patrick Mulryan, and Noah Brody.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Into the Woods

Seen on: Wednesday, 1/7/15.
Ticket purchased: Alas, full price was all I could find.
My grade: B-. A solid enough idea of a production undermined by some of its elements.

Plot and Background
The familiar fairy tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel are interwoven with a new tale of a childless Baker and his Wife attempting to undo a curse. The first act takes us through their various interwoven stories as they all journey into the woods to seek their goals, and ends on a happily ever after; the second act shows us what happens after the ever after. This musical, by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, originally opened on Broadway in 1987. That production was immortalized in a televised broadcast of the original cast. It has been revived regionally and in New York a number of times since, and a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is now playing in theaters. This production, though hosted by Roundabout, was created by Fiasco Theater, and features only ten actors.

What I Knew Beforehand
I know the show practically by heart, thanks to the DVD of the OBC (I've also seen multiple productions regionally and the movie adaptation). I loved Fiasco's production of Cymbeline in 2011 and 2012, which had only six actors and was an utter delight, and was very much looking forward to their next offering. I knew there would be some changes afoot here to accommodate the ten person cast, but I went in with high hopes.


Play: I have a great affection for Fiasco's joyful - and slightly chaotic - storytelling style. There's very much a sense of creation out of found objects, which gives a spontaneity to even the most carefully crafted moments. The Stepsisters' dresses can be two curtains on a rod; Rapunzel's tower can be a ladder; Milky White can be a man with a cowbell around his neck, squeezing an empty baby bottle (this last actually worked quite well, thanks to Andy Grotelueschen's sympathetic and funny performance). I've always thought that some of the most interesting staging and theatricality can come from having to solve problems with limited resources, and Fiasco is a fantastic illustration of that. There's something rather charming about the cast climbing onto the rolling piano as they sing the title song, and even something thrilling about the shadow play staging of the Giant's final attack at the end of the show (this may have actually been my favorite portrayal of the Giant I've seen). And with so much double-casting, quick onstage changes happen continually, and with some delightful results (I don't want to spoil the best ones except to say Florinda's transition to Milky White had me gasping with laughter, and the transition after "Witch's Lament" was haunting and lovely). The choreography within the songs itself was not always particularly dynamic or interesting, but staging of the show as a whole was exactly the kind of high-spirited controlled chaos I've come to expect from Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld.

Cast: Unfortunately, the cast is more uneven in its skill set. While Jennifer Mudge's Witch and Patrick Mulryan's Jack get vocal MVP awards and Jessie Austrian's Baker's Wife and Andy Grotelueschen's Milky White get them for acting, the rest of the cast is either adequate or occasionally not up to the challenge vocally. I could hear every lyric - which is important in a show like this - and I truly respect that achievement, but there were just too many songs sung by a performer clearly struggling to hit the notes for my comfort. The group songs, it should be noted, sound full and fine. My issues with performance were not ones I found with the last Fiasco show I saw, Cymbeline, and I think certain company members are better served by Shakespeare than by Sondheim.

Design: I guess you would call this the Hipster Into the Woods. The costumes are, by necessity, minimal, but there are plenty of suspenders, fingerless gloves, and even a handlebar mustache. The set is lovely - the side walls made of the string sets from dozens of pianos (perhaps a commentary on the sole piano at the center of the stage here), and the back wall is a series of ropes strung diagonally, a larger echo of the piano string sets. Other pieces float through the space - a large rolling ladder, a dressmaker form, tables, chairs, and wooden crates - and there's very much a sense of "found objects" throughout the design (highlights include costuming Cinderella's stepsisters with two gathered curtains on a rolling rod, a feather duster as the Giant's hen, a framed painting as Cinderella's neglectful Father, and a mounted wolf's head held by an actor as Little Red's Wolf). The lighting design finds some lovely stage pictures, particularly in the portrayal of the Giant and the resulting chaos, and when people wander the ropes of the back wall. The orchestrations, which favor largely the rolling piano, include nice flavors of bassoon, banjo, percussion blocks, a trumpet, and a few other supplementals, all played by the ensemble.

Significant cuts/changes: The Narrator's lines are broken up and shared among the cast (so his plot in Act Two is excised). "One Midnight Gone," "Two Midnights Gone," and their counterpart in the Act Two Finale are condensed to just a repeat of the title lyric; no doubt the logistics of having ten actors sharing all the roles for these numbers proved too difficult, and if you didn't know they were missing, you wouldn't know you were missing them (gee, thanks for clearing that up, Zelda).


Running: now playing at Laura Pels Theatre (Off-Broadway/Roundabout Theatre Company) - Opening January 22, 2015. Closing: March 22, 2015
Category: Musical
Length: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission

Creative Team

James Lapine
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Directors: Noah Brody & Ben Steinfeld
Choreography: Lisa Shriver
Designers: Derek McLane (Set), Whitney Locher (Costume), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting), Darron I. West (Sound), Frank Galgano & Matt Castle (Orchestrations).
Cast: Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Matt Castle, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Liz Hayes, Claire Karpen, Jennifer Mudge, Patrick Mulryan, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Adam Daveline, Lee Harrington, James David Larson, Adam Marks, Vanessa Reseland.

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