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Some Thoughts on Into the Woods

If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you're aware of my...intense feelings for the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Into the Woods (original production here). While it's an exaggeration to say, as I often do, that it's my favorite anything ever, it's not that much of an exaggeration. You can imagine my delight, then, when it was announced that The Fiasco Theater production of IttW would take up residence at the Kennedy Center for a month. I was familiar with Fiasco's past work and I was curious to see what they would do with this masterpiece. I am not so precious about my love for the original staging and recording as to be unable to love any alternative version; between the film version, cast recordings of other major productions, and other stage versions, I felt confident going into the Fiasco production that, whatever changes they made--for there are always changes--I would be able to accept, and maybe even enjoy then. I gobbled up tickets and made plans to see it 4 (!) times during its month long run.

Well, two of those performances have come and gone, and I have a great deal of respect for this production, though, unsurprisingly, I don't love it unreservedly. The staging is fairly simple. Imagine the wooden floors that might be backstage at on old theater; various props and pieces of theatrical detritus scattered about; walls on either side of the stage designed from the inside of grand pianos, a motif picked up in the proscenium decoration of keyboards; upstage, the design ends in theatrical ropes that visually recall a forest; and in center stage, a single upright piano on wheels. Clearly, both in the setting and in the choices made several times throughout the play, the company is reinforcing the theatrical nature of the show. This is totally appropriate with IttW, a show with a narrator who get thrown to the giant in Act II. The overarching motif of the production is almost, "We're going to put put on a show!" like an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie.

Adding to this impression is the stripped-down orchestrations. That piano center-stage is used as a prop at times (especially in a few instances involving the Witch and with the Baker's Wife's death), but it also the source for most of the musical accompaniment. Various members of the ensemble play the cello, trumpets, percussion instruments, and even the bassoon at key moments in the score to reinforce the strength of the piano, but the impression musically is almost that of a rehearsal pianist putting the cast through its paces before the show opens.

The cast, chosen specifically for this national tour, generally acquit themselves well, with a few standouts and a few questionable choices. The cast of 10 actors--nicely balanced at 5 men and 5 women, plus Evan Rees as the pianist who gets a few lines here and there and sings with the ensemble--plays all of the roles in the show, which had an original Broadway cast of over 15. Through some canny doubling, and some major editing, the 10 actors fill out the play nicely. Most of the time, most of the cast is on the stage, watching the action, again making it feel as if we are watching a rehearsal. This is accentuated further still by the cast wearing very basic, plain clothes--undergarments essentially--and then adding or removing other very specific clothing items to become their characters: Little Red with her cape, etc.

 As seems to be the trend with more recent productions, the role of the Narrator was eliminated entirely. The narration is instead distributed among the cast to actors who aren't a part of the scene. As a great believer in the Narrator, especially the way he reinforces the themes of Act II, I always hope that a new production will keep the role, but it's clearly too easy to cut to help streamline the play. This means that the pivotal scene in Act II where the characters become aware of, well, being characters, is lost. Again, I think this is probably just too easy a cute to make to clarify and shorten the show.

Fiasco keeps all the other speaking parts, though not in the ways expected. For example, while it is traditional that The Wolf (Anthony Chatmon II) doubles as Cinderella's Prince, as he does here, he and Rapunzel's Prince (Darick Pead) also double as the wicked step-sisters, Lucinda and Florinda, an effect created by the two men holding a curtain rod with flowery drapes over themselves as they stand side by side. The visual message "dress" is immediate and quite witty, and even, deliberately or not, calls back to Carol Burnett's famous line "I saw it it in the window, and I just couldn't resist it." Chatmon for his part is the least exciting member of the cast. I don't know if he simply isn't comfortable enough with the material, or if he doesn't like it, but he just rather pales, especially as the Prince. There's not enough smug arrogance masking itself as charm. In both versions of "Agony," it's Pead who steals the spotlight. Incidentally, at both performances I have attended so far, "Agony" got the longest sustained applause of any of the individual numbers.

Pead also plays Milky White--Jack's cow that is a prop on wheels in the original production but has been imagined in so many ways there is a Tumblr devoted to it. Pead's costume as the cow consists of a cowbell around his neck (that is replaced with a gold one when Jack becomes rich) and an occasional cord around his waist. He also remains upright for the entire part. Playing a cow (linger on that), Pead very nearly steals the show, interacting with the other characters almost as a Disney animal might, mooing in frustration or happiness and mooing out his rage at the Baker and his Wife in Milky's hilariously OTT death in Act I. He also shuffles side to side while the Baker and his Wife sing 'It Takes Two'--it was a very funny touch, but it did border on upstaging. Milky also gets one proper word of dialogue, but I won't spoil it. Pead for me, generally, is a great presence, warm and comedic in a production that otherwise pushes the darkness of the show.

If you know the show, you're probably asking right now how the top roles are. Famously, The Witch is thought of as the star role, even though it's not *really* her show. Still, Vanessa Reseland owns every scene she's in, as every good Witch should. Her costume transformation is minimal and her make-up is essentially non-existent, but Reseland portrays the Witch in Act I as the same woman we come to learn more about in Act II, creating a definite sense of continuity. However, and this is a big however, the arrangement of her big farewell "Last Midnight' is just off. The production goes with the original Broadway version of the song, as opposed to the later lullabye lyrics. So far, so good. The piano is augmented by other instruments, including a bass drum that adds extra urgency and import, but the song stops and starts too often between verses to really build into the crescendo it should. The song works because it builds in speed and intensity as it goes on, with lyrics coming so fast they can be hard to hear. It's possible this production opted to slow things down for intelligibility's sake, which would make sense. But then slow the entire song down, don't go for urgency, but constantly pull back from really pushing as far as the song requires. Reseland's belting is top-notch--her "Stay With Me" and "Lament" are heart-rending--but maybe she felt less comfortable in the faster tempo. The Witch's disappearance is also the one time the extremely minimal stagecraft of the production fails--she just sort of falls into the woods upstage. Hardly the exit worthy of one of the most dynamic female roles in Sondheim. Both times I have seen it, the applause for this number, leading on from a well-done "Your Fault," has been warm, but not intense. It should be a showstopper, but it doesn't stop anything.

The Baker is arguably the actual main character, and Evan Harrington does an excellent job with what is often a somewhat thankless role, delivering a very moving "No More." As for the Baker's Wife, originally portrayed by Joanna Gleason in what still must be considered the definitive performance, Eleasha Gamble handles the dramatic side of the character with aplomb and her vocal performance is excellent. She misses, however, the Wife's better comedic lines. The Baker and his Wife are the main original creations of Sondheim and Lapine for the show, and they are decidedly not fairy tale types. As written, they seem more like an urban couple dealing with very mundane things (wanting more money, having a baby, a bigger house), and their reactions to the fantastical surroundings they live in is a great deal of the fun of the show. Gamble, however, doesn't seem able to get the joke across unless it is so big as to be unmistakable. For example, during her first encounter with Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer), the Wife tells Cinderella that her husband is off undoing a spell, and Cinderella responds with an impressed "Oh!" Ideally, Gamble would layer onto that line some false humility about her husband's deeds; instead, she delivers it straight. Such is the case for many of the smaller laugh lines the Wife has (about the scarf, where she got the hair, etc.). This is one case where my familiarity with Gleason's Tony-winning performance arguably hurt my ability to enjoy the show. With the Baker's Wife, there is only so far that an actress can stray from my impression before I start to think of it not just as a different interpretation, but as a lesser one--and that's on me.

Cinderella is not usually my favorite character in the show, but Veldheer really captures the indecisive state the character inhabits. Never has the lyric, "What is wrong with me mother? Something must be wrong," landed with such oomph. She also makes "One the Steps of the Palace" sound easy (it's very not), and she acts the role as well as she sings it. Side note on "On the Steps of the Palace": taking after the "trio" in Follies, some stagings of the show (including the excellent Regents Park London production, which seems to have inspired the one here) bring back Little Red and Jack to reinforce and unite the three "I know" songs in the first act. To be blunt, I don't like it. Little Red and Jack have already had their songs and their big moments (Jack especially). Let Cinderella have her solo moment, I say. Also, I never really noticed until this staging, but Cinderella provides both clever stratagems that help them defeat the giant. Little Red does nothing, and the Baker and Jack's brilliant plan is to hit the Giant with sticks. Brilliant. Cinderella will clearly be the brains of the operation going forward.

As for Jack (Philippe Arroyo), his connection with Milky White, as mentioned above, really elevates their scenes in the first act. His "Giants in the Sky" (probably the favorite song of every male teenage theater nerd) pushes the sexual metaphor lightly, but not so much as to make the subtext text. Coming on the heels of "First Midnight," Jack essentially has a captive audience on stage for his big number, and the cast sits down like schoolchildren to listen to Jack tell his tale. It's a lovely moment that again, feeds into the overarching theme of storytelling and theatricality. Jack also has a very well-timed hug with his mother that got to me both times I saw it. In another unexpected doubling, Jack also plays the Prince's Steward. This adds extra weight to the scene where the Steward kills Jack's mother, as it's her own son (or the same actor) who delivers the killing blow. Intended or not, it is positively Freudian.

Because her main story gets wrapped up so comparatively early, Little Red can often get lost in the shuffle of the later scenes. That said, Lisa Helmi Johanson holds her own as both Little Red and Rapunzel. Her confrontation with Jack about the hen lacks the angry flirtatiousness that the scene sometimes has, and truly feels more like two children having a fight, which is my preferred interpretation of the scene. (N.B.: The above-mentioned Regents Park production is brilliant, and you should go see it. That said, it does tend to oversexualize the story for my taste. Play the text stronger than the subtext please.) Fred Rose as The Mysterious Man (and cello accompanist) and Bonne Kramer playing both Jack's mother and Cinderella's stepmother round out the cast. The Giant is voiced by various female members of the cast, and Cinderella's mother is voiced by the female half of the cast minus Cinderella, in beautiful tight harmony. Cinderella's father is played very amusingly by a painting. Indeed, the very fact that Cinderella's father is a role with lines has clearly become a standing joke among people producing the show.

With all the doubling, there are invariably times where two characters played by the same actor will be on stage at the same time. The production deals with this in different ways: in the case of Cinderella's Prince, when he arrives at the end of Act I looking for the owner of the slipper, he makes quite a joke and display of the fact that he plays Lucinda, as well. Darick Pead, on the other hand, slides quickly from one side of the stage to the other changing from Florinda to Milky White. Most dramatically, since Little Red and Cinderella's stepmother are part of the group that witnesses Rapunzel and Jack's mother die, the actors acknowledge this fact. After an appropriate period of time spent on the deaths, the actresses get up, almost as ghosts, leaving behind the totemic garment for their characters: the yellow blond wig for Rapunzel, a tattered shawl for Jack's mother. They then proceed upstage where they make a show of putting on Little Red's wolf cloak and the wicked stepmother's floral hat. In the end, downstage, the characters are mourning over pieces of fabric, not bodies, and it is surprisingly moving.

Aside from the things I've mentioned above (most of which are minor), I have some more substantial criticisms of this production. First, they cut all of the aphorisms, etc. from "First Midnight," etc. No, "The slotted spoon can catch the potato." No reprise of the format at the end. They're all gone. I can understand a production wanting to save time, but this production reinstates "Our Little World," the duet between Rapunzel and the Witch in Act I. It's definitely one of the weaker songs in the show, and it wasn't even used in the original Broadway production. It's a perfectly adequate Sondheim song, which means it is in the top 1/1000 of all songs ever written, but, to quote the man himself, the song "often just lies there," and it tends to slow the show down before it's even really gotten going. I would much rather have the aphorisms (especially the ones uttered by the main characters) and lose "Our Little World."

They also cut (wait for it) a few verses of the final "Into the Woods," including those featuring the immortal "But now there's you, me, her, and him" and "The light is getting dimmer. / I think I see a glimmer." I honestly can't understand this choice. Again, I assume time was the factor, but the verses would probably take a minute, and they contain so much narrative richness. Indeed, the multiple iterations of the "Into the Woods" theme gain strength over time, partly because each one is lyrically unique and speaks to the exact moment in the play in which it appears. This is no simple reprise, but an evolution. But, I'm not a theater director--I am a theater fan, so my judgement is likely skewed. That said, not since an otherwise amazing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream ended without Puck's farewell to the audience have I come to the end of a show I loved and knew well and been taken so aback.

So...obviously I have thoughts about this show and this production. Lest the above sound too negative, I will say that I get to see it again in 2 days time, and I am thoroughly pumped to go and swoon and cry my ass off. I may, someday, write more thoroughly about the play qua play (theme, narrative structure, lyric composition, etc.), but that can wait for another day.

Relatedly, I came across this video yesterday and I wanted to post it because it so wonderfully captures the multifold magic of Stephen Sondheim. Clearly, children will listen...

















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