Friday, July 3, 2015

Review: Into the Woods

Fiasco Theater's pared-down production of Sondheim's extreme-fairytale musical at Princeton's McCarter has wonderful moments but isn't quite as charming as it thinks it is.

Review: Into the Woods


By David Patrick Stearns

PRINCETON - "Is this professional or volunteer?" asked one of the younger audience members at Into the Woods, now playing at the McCarter Theatre Center in a production by the Fiasco Theater. Good question.

Before the show began on Saturday afternoon, the scrupulously casual actors loitered around the stage, greeting friends in the audience, slowly coalescing into the intricate web of fairy tales retold by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine with a wisdom that grows deeper with repeated exposure.

With its makeshift look and low-tech manner, the Fiasco production relies almost exclusively on the theatrical wiles of the acting, singing, and directing, and has enough revelatory moments to be worth a drive to Princeton. But the production isn't quite as charming as it thinks it is.

An ensemble theater that grew out of Brown University's Trinity Rep MFA acting program, Fiasco has enjoyed success with problematic plays such as Cymbeline. Here, it follows a trend toward stripped-down Sondheim with plainclothes actors who accompany each other on guitar, toy piano, etc.

In effect, Into the Woods was staged on the sets for Our Town. A ladder stood in for a castle tower. Stage rigging suggested the witch's tangled anguish in the late-Act II song "The Last Midnight."

Understandably, not all 18 characters were clearly differentiated. Most of them are going to great lengths to get what they want, and they succeed. Cinderella and Rapunzel get their princes. Jack climbs a beanstalk to find a golden harp. Then a vengeful giant in Act II brings everybody back to something vastly different: what they need.

You know the production works when you feel the trauma of that journey, when the oft-criticized Act II feels stronger than Act I, and when "The Last Midnight" is the most powerful moment in the show.

Ultimately, it's the character portraits that sell the show. Some were works in progress (Emily Young's Red Ridinghood). But Jessie Austrian (the Baker's Wife) and Jennifer Mudge (the Witch) anchored the show with charismatic solidity. And Patrick Mulryan made Jack's "Giants in the Sky" song Shakespearean in its portrait of inner transformation.

However, much distracting silliness crept in. Andy Grotelueschen and Noah Brody (who codirected the show with Ben Steinfeld) had a grand time playing the two princes plus the evil stepsisters in drag, but bludgeoned their punch lines to death and seemed so pleased with their cleverness that they couldn't stay in character. Laughs were cheap. Even "volunteers" know better.


Into the Woods

Through June 9 at the McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets: $20-$93.80. Information: 609-258-2787 or

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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