In Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter James Lapine crammed beloved fairy tales together with invented stories to create one craggy, complex world, as funny as it is thoughtful, at once warm and frightening like every good folk story. Cinderella longs for her Ball, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and his mother hope for a way out of poverty, Little Red Ridinghood skips to Granny’s house, a witch despairs for her youth and beauty, a couple yearns for a baby and much more. Stories that never intersected on the page intertwine in one singular musical-theatre story, set in a world centered around the Woods, the dark heart of desires and unknown adventures, through which each character must journey to get what they want.
Though they’re in the same story, many of the characters in this Into the Woods, directed by Kathryn Van Meter and now running at Village Theatre, never quite feel like they're in the same show.
There’s a lot of “not quite” here, in fact. The cast is talented, the set lovely, the lighting and costume design clever, but the sum was ultimately less than its parts. For many of the performers, their roles were just out of their vocal range, their complicated melodies not quite in rhythm, their portrayals accurate but dishonest.
Layers of minor quibbles can make it hard to tell what is and isn't working, but as a diagnostic tool, one telling symptom of a not-there show is that the jokes don’t work, and on opening weekend, most of them landed with a thud. Lapine’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics are rife with silly puns, ridiculous wordplay and sardonic fairy tale allusions and, when delivered right, they’re really funny.
The problem seems best illustrated in the character of the Narrator (Eric Jensen), who guides the audience through the show from the first strains of “Once upon a time…” Rather than propelling the story along from his outside position, his every interjection feels like a middle school English teacher pausing the movie for a dry informational aside—even from his narrative remove, our narrator must be a successful storyteller.
His misdirection seemed indicative of a larger tonal problem in the show: not campy, not serious, not whimsical, caught in an eddy between too earnest and not earnest enough, focused on realism over honesty, which renders most of the performances flat. Cinderella’s Prince (Kevin Vortmann) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Matthew Posner) stole the show, as the Princes always do, because those roles, entitled and intense, can only be played with 100% over-the-top commitment, which will get laughs even if they're delivered with the artifice of a cardboard cutout. Everyone here wants something with every fiber of their being, wishing and yearning from the roots of their soul, and those dreams have to be taken seriously. After all, the stepsisters don’t find themselves vapid.
The Wolf (Vortmann again) is distressingly over-the-top in his predation of Little Red, largely because he’s so much more over-the-top than anyone else. Allison Standley, as Cinderella, rang with a lovely soprano and her drunk post-Ball moments were among the show’s funniest, along with Arika Matoba’s perfectly deadpan Little Red. Mari Nelson is a formidable witch, and her “Last Midnight” was everything you want from that morally complex, powerfully female ballad until the range got away from her.
Also, adding in-jokes like the witch mouthing what the fuck?! when she realizes she’s regained her beauty but lost her powers reads as desperate. Trust the original material, and your interpretation of it, to be funny, so you don’t need to toss in something modern and reliable for an easy laugh. If you don’t find a show funny that is meant to be funny, don’t pick that show.
Visually, this Into the Woods is lovely, the set by Matthew Smucker so redolent of paper it almost smelled like a fairy tale tome, but oddly used. At times, the endlessly rotating set (to convey distance traveled) was dizzying, and I cringed watching the spirit of Cinderella’s mother awkwardly clamber down from her tree via spiral staircase and try to unobtrusively exit the stage while another scene was already underway.
As the comedy is muddled, so is the moral complexity, which this show, as written, has in spades: the danger of getting what you wish for, the risk and reward of straying from your path, self-preservation versus the greater good... In the show's second act, as each character deals with the unexpected fallout of their realized dreams, Into the Woods gives so much more than platitudes. But this production, sadly, doesn't.
Into the Woods runs through Oct. 22 at Village Theatre in Issaquah, and Oct. 27 – Nov. 19 at Everett Performing Arts Center