It has taken me a while to sit down to write this review, but I am not sure as to why this has happened.  I think it may be that it was such a disappointing experience that I didn’t want to think about it.  An anonymous writer once penned, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but in this case, it didn’t.  Even though it’s been quite a while since I saw the performance, I’m still miffed at this production by the Fiasco Theatre Company which appeared at McCarter Theatre’s Berlind Theatre from May 3 to June 9.   It was a “new take” on Sondheim’s incredible musical, and whenever I see terms like “a new take,” “reimagined,” or “updated,” I immediately get suspicious.

INTO THE WOODS is another of “those” musicals; people either love it or hate this show that has been on Broadway three times chalking up a total of 1044 performances and garnering five Tony Awards and a host of other awards for those outings.  It is one of Sondheim’s most clever shows lyrically, and the clarity of the music and lyrics is essential to the success of the piece.

I have been fortunate in seeing this show done many times.  The original Broadway production was charmingly set with most of the woods suggested by a series of drops – very simply done.  The original London production was much darker with an almost gothic feel to the dark and foreboding woods and a huge cuckoo clock presiding over all.  An edge was added to this production which made it less accessible.  A pared-down, but successful production was mounted by students at The Royal Academy of Music in the 1990’s because they preserved the integrity of the music, lyrics, and book, and the most recent Broadway outing in 2002 which seemed unfocused for some reason.  There have been touring companies, as well as many regional companies that have met with various levels of success. However, all of these have tried to do just service to the material.

However, here, the show was unmercifully hacked down to a cast of eleven from nineteen as written with the musical accompaniment by a lone piano which simply does not do this rich score, originally orchestrated by the legendary Jonathan Tunick, any justice whatsoever.  Not only was it hacked to pieces, there was far too much “cutesy” staging and abject mugging going on throughout the evening that it interfered with and detracted from the script and score.  This production simply looked like there was no money and not enough people, so the company “made do” with a bargain-basement version.

It is a credit to the score by Sondheim and book by James Lapine that people were still able to enjoy it through all of the muck on stage in this production.  Knowing what this show can be made me realize how much more the audience would have enjoyed it if they had seen it unencumbered by antics, musical accompaniment that didn’t often get lost, and voices that were up to the task at hand.

Let me interject here that I am probably in the minority about this although there were audience members who left during the intermission on the evening I attended.  The show was extended.  I have had several conversations with those who saw it after me; several of whom had never seen it before.  Their responses included remarks like, “It was so imaginative,”  “They really made do with very little,” and “I thought the clutter on stage was wonderful.”  When I asked those who had not seen it before about specific plot points like The Mysterious Man being The Baker’s father, I was generally met with “He was?  Oh, I didn’t get that.”  In fact, many of them didn’t get much of the storyline, and it’s not because they are incapable of it.  They, like the theatre company, lost the plot somewhere along the way.

The story, in brief, mixes together the lives of several fairytale characters:  Cinderella, The Baker and His Wife (which seems to have been adapted for dramatic purposes from THUMBELINA), Jack the Giant Killer, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood.  Oh, there’s a bit of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White thrown in as well.  They all wish for something, and as they find out “Wishes come true, not free.”  The first act has a seemingly happy ending, Jack and his mother are rich, Cinderella is marrying her Prince, The Baker and His Wife have a child, and the Witch is once again beautiful.  However, that happiness is short-lived, and the second act deals with all of the repercussions of their transgressions with the few remaining characters wiser and stronger because of their ordeals.

The first problem with this production was the set.  There was no sense of focus on the stage.  Left and right featured floor to ceiling panels of piano sound boards, and the back of the stage was filled with ropes which one can only imagine were supposed to be piano strings.  Here comes the question, folks: “Why?”   Did it look like a woods?  No, it looked like a series of ropes.  The rest of the set consisted of unmatched tables, chairs – stuff spread about which often got in the way of the action and never helped the audience to truly establish a scene.  The costumes by Whitney Locher were simply a series of rag-bag things that made it look more like MARAT/SADE than INTO THE WOODS.  The witch came out particularly poorly with what looked like a black slip for a costume along with black opera gloves.   The physical production could only be described as “post-apocalyptic” grunge or a badly interpreted production of GODSPELL.

Vocally, the show was weak as well.  Only a few of the performers were up to the challenges of this score which requires solid singing along with extremely crisp diction.  Sondheim’s lyrics are dense and contain wonderful plays on the language.  For instance, Jack’s Mother sings the following about their cow Milky White (I’ll get to him in a minute):

“There are bugs on her dugs.  There are flies in her eyes. There’s a lump on her rump big enough to be a hump, son.  There’s no time to sit and dither while her withers wither with her”

Although Liz Hayes, who played Jack’s Mother and Cinderella’s Stepmother, was too young for the roles, she sang well and delivered and excellent performance, there were others who did not handle the music well.  They included Noah Brody who mangled the Wolf’s song and his work as Cinderella’s Prince, Andy Grotelueschen who gave a weak performance as Rapunzel’s Prince, and Paul J. Coffey who just seemed out of sorts as the Mysterious Man who is eventually revealed as The Baker’s Father, and sadly, Jennifer Mudge who was simply lackluster, wanting, and sometimes apologetic as the Witch.

There were some good voices and performances in the cast, but they were up against the dire physical production.  Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld were both charming as The Baker’s Wife and The Baker.  They showed that they understood the material and gave it its proper due.  Patrick Mulryan, who is a giant himself, gave an excellent performance as Jack, and Claire Karpen was charming as Cinderella.  Emily Young was wonderfully quirky as Red Riding Hood, but she did not have the proper edge to make the character fully successful.

Musically, Matt Castle worked valiantly to keep the company together with his piano playing which he had to augment to catch up or cover errors by the performers.   There is just too much music in this show for it to be reduced to one piano and be successful.  The addition of a few other instruments (including some really bad guitar playing) just made things more disjointed and sad.

One of the overused words I heard from the audience was “clever.”  Much of what was on stage was so clever that it didn’t seem to belong to this script in the same manner as the set did not belong with what was happening.

The Wicked Stepsisters were played by Grotelueschen and Brody as they stood behind a drapery rod with the dirty drapes acting as dresses.  They mugged so badly that their lines were obscured and the moment lost.  Grotelueschen was also guilty of this when he played Milky White.  His antics overshadowed what was being said, and he not only drew focus, he also upstaged the others who were delivering plot points.  Mugging was rampant throughout the evening.

The problems here more than likely came from their being two directors who were also in the show.  They truly needed someone to play referee and simply say, “NO” many times.  Brody and Steinfeld are both founders and artistic directors of Fiasco Theater, and they have been responsible for many interesting productions.  This is not one of them.  They were out of their depth with this production of INTO THE WOODS, and were too close to the project since they were in it and controlled it.  This may have worked for them in the past, but it did not work here.

INTO THE WOODS is a huge undertaking, and unlike others, I cannot get excited about “reimagining” works that are proven, especially when that reimagining means that the production will not do justice to the work, and Fiasco Theater certainly did not do justice to this work.

Absence did not make my heart grow fonder; I just got angrier and wish that all of those audience members who enjoyed what they saw would find a copy of the DVD of the original so that they could hear what the show should sound like.  I’m not saying that the original production of any show is always the best, but here, it was certainly far more understandable and enjoyable.

I really wanted to like this production because I truly love this show, but it was impossible for me to do so here

Ben Brantley of THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote in his review of the show, “Never mind that this production doesn’t feature anything like the usual highly polished, highly trained vocalists and orchestra customary for the rendering of Sondheim. Onstage you’ll find one upright piano (played by Matt Castle) and a few other instruments (a cello, a guitar, some woodwinds) scattered about for cast members to pick up from time to time. And some of the performers, to be blunt, can barely carry a tune.”   Perhaps Mr. Brantley can “never mind” that there are few singers or a decent production on stage for a show, but some of us who love the theatre still expect it.  This production was simply far too much about process and not nearly enough about production.   It was a glimpse at what happens in a workshop environment before all of the pieces are put together in a finished “whole.”  There was far too much of the “Let’s throw it at the wall to see if it sticks” on view here.

Eugene O’Neill’s STRANGE INTERLUDE is a rather difficult play to mount successfully, and the current Royal National Theatre production disappointingly falls far short of being successful. 

The play follows the lives of three men and the woman to whom they are inexplicably drawn for over forty years.  Nina Leeds is said to be a dynamic and beautiful woman which causes the first problem in this production.  Although Anne-Marie Duff is a solid performer, she has neither the beauty nor magnetism to understandably elicit such devotion.  Charles (Charley) Marsden (Charles Edwards) loved Nina from the time she was a young girl, and he buried that love in the care of his mother as Nina was in love with a young man named Gordon whom she elevates to hero status and bases all of her future relationships on her idealization of him after he is killed in World War I.

Charley is Nina’s confidant and stays with her even when she marries the somewhat naïve Sam Evans (Jason Watkins) who is inexplicably portrayed as a simple-minded fool here, but this is undoubtedly not the fault of Watkins as this smacks of the rather heavy-handed direction of Simon Godwin which is found throughout. Godwin either does not understand the script or has decided to simply throw an unsupportable concept at it which reduces the pathos and humanity of the characters into mild comedy.

The third man who comes under the spell of Nina is Doctor Edmund Darrell (Darren Pettie) whom she supposedly loves but over whom she chooses Sam to marry which makes little sense in this production when comparing a dashing doctor to a simpleton who has no set career at that point.   Nina also convinces Edmund to father the child she cannot otherwise have with Sam because she cannot have a child with Sam as she is warned by Sam’s mother that there is inherited insanity in the family.   She has the child whom she names Gordon, and Sam does become more confident, becoming a “go getter” who suddenly becomes a hugely successful businessman.

Both Charley, whose mother eventually dies, and Edmund remain extended family as Nina’s child grows up, loathing Edmond and never knowing him as his biological father.  Eventually, Sam dies, Edmund leaves having finally gotten over Nina, and young Gordon flies off to marry his love, a marriage which Nina did everything in her power to break as she seems to see her lost love Gordon in her son.

All that is left at the end of the play is the older, spent Nina whose machinations have come to nothing; she’s now facing a lonely life but is saved by Charley who is now an old, lonely man who has wasted his life waiting for her.  Charley is happy to finally have Nina, even though he is the default choice among her three swains.  It is incredibly sad that his life is sated by taking what has been left over.

As mentioned, Godwin’s direction is sadly misguided.  These characters are sad and deluded, but here, they are simply silly and willful with Sam emerging as the silliest.  Godwin has cheapened the sentiment and removed the drama. One prime example of this cheapened aspect is a scene between Nina and Sam’s mother (Geraldine Amos).   Mrs. Evans appears to be backwoods farming woman who should be milking a cow or digging potatoes for some reason.  This adds to the lower class appearance of Sam and makes Nina’s attraction to him seem even more ridiculous.  Most of the choices here make little to no sense.  I do not expect this from the National theatre.

The physical production is ridiculous as well.  “Designer” Soutra Gilmour has costumed the cast in often poorly tailored and/or fitting clothing which huge hems and poor stitching which can be seen from the second row of the stalls where I was sitting.  However weak the costuming,  Gilmour’s sets are truly bizarre and poorly designed.  In Nina’s father’s house, there is a stairwell outside of the door from the hall that is so close to the doorway that everyone must duck under it to get into the room.  There are also two tiers to the room which don’t even come close to being understandable.  Also, the set is on a turntable, so each section of the turntable makes it appear that the rooms are in a circular house as they are all pronounced wedges.

The weirdness continues to the New York house of Nina and Sam that has a bizarre cage-like structure in the middle of the set which contains a circular staircase.  It’s absurd.  Also, a boat set turns into a ramp for the final scene which looks like an unfinished boardwalk that is falling down and makes no sense as it is supposedly in the yard of Nina and Sam’s house.  The back wall also fits together poorly which just looks bad.

Like the direction, the physical production is not up to the standard of the RNT.  I have long loved productions there, but this truly looks like it’s a mediocre result of a year-end project of an inept or second-rate drama school.

The acting is variable.  There are three enjoyable performances that come from Patrick Drury who is on all too briefly as Nina’s father.  He is actually a believable human.  Emily Plumtree is charming as Madeline Arnold who  becomes Gordon’s wife.  She is actually animated and has tried to do something with her material.  Fortunately, Edwards is excellent as Charley.  He seems to understand the role and delivers a solid, fully rounded character and performance.    It is sad that he is one of the few characters in this play about whom one can care when one should care about all of them.

I wanted to like this production as I have never had the opportunity to see a professional production of STRANGE INTERLUDE before.  I think I may like this script best of all of O’Neill’s works as it doesn’t seem to be overly self-indulgent.  I just hope that this production isn’t a warning about what will now be happening at the RNT.  I do not know if Simon Godwin is a young or old director, but he seems to be a director who does not bother to fully understand the material, yet he has the confidence to believe he can do whatever he wants to it.  Because of this, STRANGE INTERLUDE at the RNT in London is a huge disappointment.  What a shame.