When Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote Into The Woods (in 1986/87) they created something magical and enduring. Fractured fairy tales, new and old, linked with sparkling lyrics (possibly Sondheim’s best) and glorious music, full of fun, fear and friendship. Although more popular with the public than many Sondheim musicals, at least when first written, it has shone in the world of Opera, on film and in many stage productions. But there has never been any production as inventive and surprising as this one from Fiasco Theater.
Birds are made of paper, their voices supplied by flautists. Cinderella’s mother takes the form of a vintage female clothes dummy and her voice is supplied by a female quartet. Milky White is played by a bearded man with a cowbell around his neck. Cinderella’s step-sisters are faux pantomime dames. The Princes use stick wooden horses with hair attachments and the Wolf is designated by a work of taxidermy.
The Giant’s wife is fearsome because of a megaphone and back-lighting. The child of the Baker and his wife squalls courtesy of Cinderella. There is no Narrator. Characters are denoted by subtle changes of costume: the Witch wears a mask and a crocheted shawl, and when the spell is broken, is all black boots, silk nightgown and velvet overcoat.
This is Fiasco Theater’s version of Into The Woods, now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre following a successful run off-Broadway in 2015. Most of the cast from that production appear here. It’s great strength lies in the true, honest and charming acting of most of the ensemble, a group of travelling players who clearly love their work and love working together. Their joy is infectious.
Which is just as well because almost none of the cast are properly trained singers capable of doing justice to Sondheim’s difficult but incredibly rewarding score. Many notes are flat or sharp, many harmonies are mangled, much of the beauty of the melodies is absent.
Ordinarily, such dissonance would cause one to deflate, recoil, be angered even – after all, once you have heard Jenna Russell sing Moments In The Woods you know what you are missing when faultless singing is not there. But somehow the absence of orchestration, full sets, detailed costumes and individual performers for separate roles, combined with the steady but tiny presence of a solo piano – that combined absence and presence – makes the vocal work here seem quite good enough. At least, for the most part.
The space at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre is tiny and this production played in a bigger space off-Broadway, so the production has an intimacy here it was denied in New York.
At first, this seemed like an improvement: everyone was closer and so it was easier to get involved. While that is true, there are definite downsides to the close-up quality of the experience.
Firstly, Derek McLane’s set does not make much sense here. Rather than having the feeling that one is seeing a musical play out inside a music making instrument, a piano probably, the feeling here is less precise. Bits of instruments adorn the sides of the stage and there are thick metallic tubes at the back of the stage which double as the Woods when lit green. But there is no sense of height and no perspective really.
This has the result of suggesting a kind of wondrous playbox area – which is fine and works perfectly well, but is not as impressive as it was in the larger space.
Secondly, there is little scope for magic. There are not that many special effects but those that there are occur in plain view or are barely hidden by blackouts.
Thirdly, the closeness makes the doubling of roles both more obvious and more appealing. The audience feel part of the trick, and enjoy that feeling.
That sounds like a positive, and, looked at one way, it is. But what is lost is a sense of empathy with character. Instead of loving Jack, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and the others, the audience comes to love the actors playing those parts. While this is nice, it’s not good: it is far better with Into The Woods for the audience to adore the characters and care what happens to them.
In this production in this space, you come to care about the actors and admire their craft; it’s quite a different thing. But, as Sondheim says, nice is different than good, not worse than it.
Because, for all of these observations, the fact is that this production works in ways that other productions have not. It is difficult to identify what is the cause, but here there is harmony between Act One and Act Two: there is no sudden jolt into a darker morality tale when the Giant’s wife descends the second beanstalk and starts crashing around the kingdom.
Although the first Act is fun and joyful, it is not unceasingly so; the second Act continues the fun but when the laughs peter out it doesn’t seem to matter. In the end, the explanation probably lies in the fact that one is absorbed with the performers rather than the characters, but, whatever the cause, this joined-up sense is welcome.
Some of the score is cut, sadly: the first and second Midnight sections, which provide keen insights into the characters, are largely missing. Less worrisome is the removal of the character of the Narrator: his absence means there is one less, almost Brechtian, awkward death in Act Two and his lines are divided among the company so a sense of communal storytelling is in play. They put the folk back into this folk tale.
The fact that this company of 10 actors and 1 pianist (Evan Rees) make Into The Woods work so effectively is chiefly down to the inventive skills of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld who co-direct the production, with the able assistance of choreography from Lisa Shriver. It is the genius of the underlying concepts which makes this production sing, not the vocal performances.
The crispest performances come from Andy Grotelueschen who plays three roles: Milky White (milked for every possible laugh and sad sigh), Florinda (camp and in part drag) and Rapunzel’s Prince (he doesn’t look the part but he brings stature and comic sense to every aspect of it). He and Brody make a good team as brothers and sisters (Brody plays Lucinda and Cinderella’s Prince) although they do tend to egg each other on into excess and repeat the same gags a lot. (Yet, they get laughs anyway)
There is fine acting from Jessie Austrian as the Baker’s Wife; she manages to make the audience forget that she is actually pregnant through Act One when the character is meant to be cursed and unable to fall pregnant. Her gentle nature is perfect for the character. Claire Karpen makes a good fist of Cinderella; she is quirky and sincere and makes the most of pratfalls and chatting with paper birds. She is dotty as Granny wrenched from the Wolf’s stomach – utterly unrecognisable really.
Vanessa Reseland, who was not in the Off-Broadway production, is best as the glamorous Witch and infuses the part with venom and comedic touches. She seems not as comfortable as the older uglier witch, but that might have been more about the vocal demands that part of the role brings with it. Emily Young doubles as Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel and, curiously, makes more out of Rapunzel than she does from Red Riding Hood.
As Jack, Patrick Mulryan is suitably dense and utterly adorable; as the Steward, he is pompous and officious. The Milky White/Jack relationship is sheer delight.
Liz Hayes excels as Jack’s mother and Cinderella’s Stepmother, imbuing each character with exactly the right amount of steel; she is effective as the Giant’s wife too, and because of her skills, the murder of the Giant’s wife is cruel and shudderingly real.
Paul L Coffey makes easy work of the Mysterious Man, a part which can easily be overplayed. Coffey does not make that mistake; his wistful notion of running away seems utterly plausible.
All of these performers get away with the vocal demands of these characters. None of the singing is perfect or even accurate always, but it all works. They know how to sell the numbers even if they can’t always sustain the notes. The ensemble work, where they can take support from each other, comes across best of all.
While the strength of this production (the ideas which underpin it) lies in the talents of Brody and Steinfeld, so do the true weaknesses.
Steinfeld is unforgivably bland and flat as the Baker – everyone, including the Mysterious Man, is more complex and interesting than his Baker. Given the Baker is the core of the show, this serves to severely undermine the work.
Brady’s Wolf works visually, but vocally, really the entire point of the role, he is way out of his depth. As Cinderella’s Prince he seems more sincere than charming, which is problematic, and there is little dashing about his derring-do. However, he has remarkable attack and relishes every word with a gluttonous glee that is palpable.
Although Into The Woods was written 30 years ago, there was topical resonance. The house broke up and there was sustained laughter when this passage occurred:
Baker’s Wife: Have you seen the cow?
Jack’s Mother: No, and I don’t care to ever again. Children can be very queer about their animals. You be very careful with your children…
Baker’s Wife: I have no children.
Jack’s Mother: That’s okay too.
Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom were on everyone’s mind.
It was precisely because the emphasis in this production of Into The Woods was on the actors rather than the characters that this moment, a fourth wall smasher, worked so well.
It is the acting and the surprising inventive flourishes that remain with you after this Fiasco Theater confection. Lapine’s dialogue and Sondheim’s lyrics dazzle as they ought – they are given pristine attention by a gifted troupe of actors. Diction is immaculate throughout and across the board.
This is a moment in the woods all of its own – well worthwhile.
The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre has a good track record with productions of its own. While Fiasco Theater’s Into The Woods offers an idiosyncratic and enjoyable take, one can’t help but wonder whether investing in a new production might have been a wiser, smarter move; almost certainly, it would have been a more musical production.