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.