REVIEW: Into The Woods, Roundabout At Laura Pels Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine at the Roundabout Theare Company

Into the Woods
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre
16 January 2015
4 Stars

If you go down to the Woods today you are sure of a big surprise. At least if the Woods in that phrase is Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical, Into The Woods and where you are going is the Laura Pels Theatre, off-Broadway, where the Fiasco Theater Production is now in previews.

Trust me, you will never have seen a version of this musical anything at all like this one. Whether that is a good or bad thing will depend upon your attitude to theatre – if you want the same stuff served up time after time, you will probably hate this. There is not a single tree in sight for a start. But if you have an open mind theatrically, then this could be something special, that you will remember for a long time.

Fiasco specialises in pared down productions. A few seasons ago their breath-taking version of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, with a cast of only 6, played at the Barrow Street Theatre and proved that Cymbeline could work in ways seasoned theatregoers never thought possible.

This version of Into The Woods is also pared down. There are eleven players, including the musical director who plays piano and does the odd line as well as appearing as the fake white cow the Baker seeks to confuse the Witch with when it comes to the strike of the third midnight. The script calls for 19 characters, excluding the fake Milky White. So, instantly, this is going to be a version never attempted before.

But it's not just that. No. Derek McLane provides a set which looks like the shattered innards of a grand piano. The proscenium is framed by bits of piano, and the back wall is almost entirely taken up by a tangle of piano wires – they stand in for the Woods in some ways. But the overall result is that the audience is constantly reminded that they are not watching a musical; they are inside one.

McLane litters the playing area with bits and pieces, tables, chairs, boxes, old fashioned dress dummies and all sorts of bric a brac, so that this magical musical interior is also a large toy box, a place where things can be made from nothing. All of this accentuates the fairy tale aspect of the narrative, as well as rooting everything in childish ways.

This is an adult take on a juvenile approach to demystifying Into The Woods. It does not rely upon theatrical wizardy of the expensive kind; rather, it relies upon the alchemy of experiment, improvisation and the fun to be had with bits of paper, noises and silliness: there is a child-like breeziness which saunters through every aspect of the production. And even if you know the piece exceptionally well, you can never be sure what will happen next.

Joint directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld work hard to ensure that the overall effect emphasises imagination. For instance, in a brilliant stroke, Milky White is played by a man (Andy Grotelueschen) with a cowbell around his neck and a baby bottle in his hand to represent his useless udder – no cow head, no on all fours acting, no pantomime cow costume and no puppetry. He just becomes Milky White – and that one decision adds depth and humour and real sadness to the story of Milky White and his love for Jack and Jack's for him.

Cinderella's talkative bird friends are represented by folded sheets of paper and some clever work on a flute; the Princes' horses are simple sticks with a bit of hair; the sense of the vengeful Lady Giant is evoked by one actress with a megaphone and another casting her shadow on the backdrop of strings. Hats and scarves denote different female characters. And there is an actual clock to strike midnight. You are invited Into a world of pure imagination and if you look around you will be sure to see it.

One of the (perhaps surprising) results of this approach to the text is that there is a smoothness between Act One and Act Two. Act One does not seem as inherently delicious and joyful as in other productions, but then Act Two matches it, does not seem out of place or disconnected or suddenly darker and gloomier – the way of playing levels the field. There are cool adventures in each part, with similar techniques employed to create illusions and emotional responses. I am not sure I have ever felt I enjoyed Act Two of Into The Woods more than Act One, but that was indisputably the case in this version.

And that is not to belitte the achievements of the company in Act One. Rather, it is to emphasise how Fiasco's cleverness has seen off a complaint often levelled against this show, not one that I agree with it must be said: that in Act Two, it somehow loses its way. Not here it doesn't; here Act Two seems a natural and compelling continuation of Act One.

In part, that is because the character of the Narrator is done away with. Lines of narration necessary to move the plot along are spoken by members of the cast – with the key result that there is no need to kill off the Narrator in Act Two. But, perhaps more importantly, the inventiveness that comes from a smaller cast necessarily keeps interest sharp and focussed, and because there are no expensive sets or props to move and change, the piece has a fluidity akin to reading out aloud a fairytale.

It just works – in ways that it has not in other productions and for reasons that are entirely due to the directorial choices here.

And it works despite the fact that although the ensemble can collectively make a good sound, it is not the case that individually they are all terrific singers. Mostly, they can get away with a tune and sell a song with verve and style. There are some quite good singers and some not-so-good ones; but because this is pared back, and the musical accompaniment is so light, the defects in the music side of matters seem more an aspect of good acting rather than bad singing. Quite an achievement.

Happily, the Witch (Jennifer Mudge, a fright in crocheted awfulness before becoming a Monroe-esque black velvet temptress when she loses her powers), Cinderella (a delightful, klutzy turn from Claire Karpen, brimming with heart), Jack (an endearing Patrick Mulryan, who also plays an excellent imperious Steward), Red Riding Hood (a talented Emily Young who doubles as Rapunzel, an inspired idea), Rapunzel's Prince (Grotelueschen again, also a great Florinda), the Mysterious Man (a deft and able turn from Paul L Coffey) and Jack's Mother (Liz Hayes is sheer delight as the exasperated bean counter and equally delicious as a practical non-nonsense Cinderella's stepmother) can all manage the vocal requirements more than adequately.

I Know Things Now, Our Little World, Giants in the Sky, Stay With Me, Steps of the Palace, Ever After, Your Fault, Last Midnight and Children Will Listen are all delivered with skill, style and individual (as well as joint in the non-solo numbers) gusto.

One inspired musical notion is to make the ghost of Cinderella's mother a quartet of female voices – this is an excellent innovation, and adds ethereal beauty and charm to those sections. And the ensemble attack and sense of unfiltered joy soars high in the ebullient Ever After.

Jessie Austrian makes a splendid Baker's Wife. She is a fine actress with a good sense of the character and the underlying and conflicting emotions. She is as funny and engaging as the production allows her to be. But her singing is under par. It's not fatal, but Moments In The Woods and the two encounters with Cinderella around Very Nice Prince, are not what they should be.

The co-directors may be well advised to keep to the inventive side of directing and leave the performing to others, because both Noah Brody (Wolf, Cinderella's Prince and Lucinda) and Ben Steinfeld's Baker fell well short of the necessary mark. Brody was at his best as Lucinda and his scenes with Grotelueschen were very fine. But his singing made the Wolf entirely forgettable and worked against the overall effect of Agony. He has a unique and quirky stage personality, as his infectious silliness as Lucinda demonstrated, but it could be put to better use. Perhaps he just needs the firm hand of an arms length director?

Steinfeld was totally miscast as the Baker and did not seem to have a single idea what the character was about or what he should be doing. His delivery of dialogue was monotonous, flat and disjointed. It was like watching a robotic and mis programmed version of Chip Zien. There was no sense of humanity about him – quite mystifying given the outpouring of warmth from those with whom he shared the stage.

Unforgivably, he was not very funny and nor did he come close to bringing tears to the eye when the tragedy in Act Two engulfed him. He looked like he had been told there was no milk, not that his wife had died. Steinfeld needs to come to grips with the emotional journey of the Baker, the central narrative spine of the show, and give it full weight.

Matt Castle did a good job with the piano and members of the cast played various other instruments throughout to augment the sound in particular songs or sequences.

The movie of Into The Woods is doing cracking business everywhere and is as far away from this production as one could ever imagine. But that is not to say the movie is better than this production: actually, I don't think it is.

The sheer unbridled imagination and brio on display here creates a vibrant, unusual and very memorable version of Into The Woods. One where the musical demands matter less than the dramatic and imaginative ones – but given that the conceit is to be inside a musical, there is no serious question of shortchanging.

Go see it for yourself. You will probably never see its like again. It's liberating and inspiring – giving a remarkable “and” to add to the glittering “or” versions of this extraordinary piece. Nice is different than good: this is good.

Into The Woods runs until March 22, 2015. Visit the Roundabout website.

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