Reworked Into the Woods entertains but lacks coherent vision

Into the Woods is in many ways the perfect musical. Weaving the original Grimms’ fairy tales into a patchwork of morality tales, it reaches the young and old alike, from nursery school kids to hyper-critical college students to stodgy old professors. Virtually all of the music, written by Stephen Sondheim ’50, who also wrote the lyrics, is gorgeous and memorable. The book, by James Lapine, is riddled with thinly veiled lessons on those old sentimental values of filial respect and teamwork. Together, the two have constructed a very rare musical, in which the charming music and virtuous narrative actually make sense together – it is, after all, a fairy tale, so why shouldn’t the audience get it?

But Rob Seitelman ’01 is not quite satisfied with the clarity of Into the Woods. He understands what the musical is about: “the inevitability of choice and change in life, i.e. the ringer through which we put classic character types,” he writes in his Director’s Note in the Into the Woods program. And he knows that, above all else, the musical should be accessible to and should comfort its audience (this ain’t Brecht). However, it seems that, as a first-time director of a major Cap & Bells production, Seitelman feels the need to use his own innovative “concept” for the musical. “Now what is the concept?” he writes in the program. “I don’t necessarily want to tell you and limit your take on the production.” After seeing the show, I kind of wish he had told us.

What Seitelman’s take on Into the Woods lacks is a final, unified concept. I could see traces of the concept, as ideas in a fledgling state, but very little is actually developed. It is as though he desperately wants to twist the piece into something new, edgy, maybe even revolutionary, but cannot bear to betray the show’s conventional beauty. Rather than recreating the piece, Seitelman tampers with it. Rather than giving it new dimensions, he flattens it a little.

Some of the minor conceptual twists are simply too developed, beating the play’s elementary subtext to death. For example, Jack (of Beanstalk fame, played by Karl Hein ’02 in wonderfully ill-fitting peasant garb) has a special relationship with his cow Milky-White (cutely played by Keiko Woliver ’02 – the part is usually given to a clunky joke-prop). Some might see the relationship as symbolic of childhood attachment coupled with pubescent sexual frustration. Seitelman, though, chooses to take it one step further and put boy and cow in a very special relationship. In fact, he emphasizes Jack’s latent bestiality so much that when Jack licks a hen (yes, licks a hen) in Act 2, the humor is somewhat hollow and forced. Nevertheless, it is a very clever touch and, not surprisingly, gets the loudest laugh of the night.

However, directorial touches like this come dangerously close to turning the play into a parody of itself, forcing a rift between character and audience. Hein’s Jack is a bit too goofy and hard to relate to because his awkwardness is taken to such extremes. Neither he nor Rachel Axler ’99, as Little Red Riding Hood, peg their adolescent characters. Both, especially Axler, control their characters very well from the neck down, but their facial expressions are not as assured. In “I Know Things Now,” Axler emphasizes each lesson she has learned with an unnecessary nod and grin to the audience, as though she is not sure whether her points are coming across. Her singing is delightful, but it is not supported by a strong intention. In her defense, though, Seitelman rarely gives her anything to do onstage but prance back and forth in a straight line.

Blocking is a major problem in the production. In the very first scene, in which each of the three main fairy tales are introduced in a beautifully complex Prologue, Seitelman breaks the age-old rule of stage direction: he puts everyone (about ten people) in a straight line. They are trapped downstage, in front of a grungy, flat black curtain, with no depth and nowhere to go. True, the characters are supposed to be inside their houses, but the audience views such a cramped scene that the houses look like closets.

When the curtain rises, things do not get much better: Ellen Bognar ’01’s set design concept is a muddy mess of dimensions and flows. The stage is flanked by huge three-dimensional tree constructions, some of which are white birch trees that are almost blinding when compared to the mostly brown and dark green set. The upstage is entirely scenic painting, making the set’s background unusually flat, especially when besieged by the entire cast in the show’s few dreary dance numbers, choreographed by Jennifer Eames ’01. None of the dancing seems to be well-rehearsed or well-planned, especially at the end of the show when the characters all bunch up in what looks like a human typhoon. Most of the scene transitions are very sloppy, as well.

There is very little unity in the production: the direction has little to do with the set, which has little to do with the lighting, which has little to do with the performers. (Although the actors are in darkness on a few occasions, Ana Veselic ’01 has a solid light design.) Into the Woods is a fairy tale and is therefore inherently flat. One knows what is going to happen, so it needs a clean, unified concept to have the right impact and to give it real depth.

Still, amazingly enough, the production manages to be a partial success. Act 2, the uneasy aftermath of all those storybook endings, saves the day. It somehow sobers up the production, giving everyone involved a better grasp of whatever it is that this play is about. Even the orchestra, tightly directed by Ryan McNaughton ’01, who handles the extraordinarily complex music quite well, gets better.

What stands out most in Act 2 is the production’s mostly strong core cast. Phoebe Geer ’01 sings with a relaxed beauty as Cinderella, a somewhat less than exciting part. Her Prince, marvelously played by Lucas Peterson ’01, is a modern-day Richie Rich who just can’t bear to break out of his own polished shell. Peterson’s exceptionally strong and assured physicality gives him a real presence. Unfortunately, he keeps the same physicality as the Wolf, and it does not work. His singing of “Hello, Little Girl” is sadly diminished by a poorly designed mask, which, when paired with a body microphone, makes him sound as if he were singing in a tin can. In a bit of gimmick casting by Seitelman, Rapunzel’s Prince is played by Lindsay Hatton ’00. The casting, however, does not pay off. Hatton fails to create any sort of character, and her voice, ordinarily quite rich, is no match in volume or depth for Peterson’s: that is the problem with casting a female in a part that really requires a male voice.

The gimmick casting does work for Matt Sandoval ’99, as the Witch. His Witch is a New York wise-ass, who manipulates everyone around him with hilariously frightening glee. Unfortunately, about three-quarters of his lines are said upstage, making it impossible to see his face, especially when it is blocked by the hood of his costume. Sandoval sings with a bit too much liberty, often forcing his own phrasing onto the orchestra, but this seems almost appropriate for the old battle-axe Witch. All in all, he gives a standout performance.

Matt Speiser ’01, as Narrator and Mysterious Man, gives a performance that is literally a “standout.” Although his part is almost undermined by Seitelman’s odd choice to leave him onstage at all times (making the meddling Mysterious Man not mysterious), Speiser handles the role very smoothly, actually making the Narrator seem innocent. His performance of “No More” with Seb Arcelus ’99 completes what is the most simple and beautiful moment in the show. (I’m not too ashamed to admit it. I cried a little – But, but, I like the song a lot.) Arcelus does a fine job as the Baker, especially in Act 2, when he relaxes a bit. He and Alicia Currier ’00, his Wife, have a nice chemistry, even though their relationship is never entirely believable. Their performance of “It Takes Two” has charm to spare, but the blocking is terrible. Sara Caswell ’00 rounds out the core cast with amazing confidence as Jack’s Mother. She plays age very well, making her scenes with Jack pleasantly natural.

In Act 2, I was with them. I felt sad at the sad points and glad at the glad points – mainly because I was not distracted by emphasis on a weak, under-developed concept, but rather, I was allowed to watch the story reach its natural end. I left the theatre feeling like I had seen a very promising half of a show. This production of Into the Woods had both ambition and talent, but it never quite got them together. The moral of this story? Respect the story, and it will respect you.