Sigh. One of the hardest kinds of reviews to write are the ones about not so great productions of material you really love. Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 fairy tale musical is not only one of my favorite shows AND one of my favorite musicals from Sondheim, who passed away last year, but it’s not very arguably his most popular with audiences. Unlike much of Sondheim’s work which tends to be overly dark and complicated and really only suitable for mature audiences, Into the Woods is mostly family friendly with recognizable characters and plots, not surprising since it’s a show about classic fairy tale storytelling.
It’s also one of the most produced Sondheim shows and I’ve seen quite a few productions over the years including Village Theatre’s 2017 version which, while not perfect, was a charming and entertaining take on the material with a strong cast including Mari Nelson, who was terrific as the Witch.
Ms Nelson pops up in the new production of Into the Woods, onstage at the 5th Avenue Theatre from February 10th through March 5th but this time she’s not playing the Witch…in their infinite wisdom, director Bill Berry has cast her as the Narrator/Mysterious MAN.
Yes, it’s that type of show. And, we sort of immediately come to the main problem WITH this production of Into the Woods…it’s not well cast and it’s not well directed. Which is odd, because even though Mr. Berry had a loooooong and sometimes rocky apprenticeship with the 5th Avenue with quite a few turkeys early on in his career, he has mostly matured into a capable director. I’m not sure if it’s the long Covid layoff or budget woes or backstage strife but Mr. Berry seems to have taken a few steps back in the advancement of his career. This Into the Woods is sloppy and awkwardly staged with much of the humor drained from the show.
It also looks awful. The scenic design by Lex Marcos, is dull, unimaginative and rather cheap looking. I didn’t care for Melanie Taylor Burgess’s costume design either….it was all over the place with some costumes looking “fairy tale-ish” while others were just boring modern looks. It’s all part of a recent trend of desperate theater makers trying to make every production look “contemporary” because they have some odd idea that this will lure in younger audiences. Which is stupid.
Cast wise, no one is terrible but…no one is really that great either. Eric Ankrim and Cayman Ilika were fine as the Baker and his Wife though Ms Ilika seems to have been directed to really, really have the hots for Prince Charming, something that is typically understated in most productions of Into the Woods, which makes audiences really care for the character especially with her sad fate in the show. Here, she just seems like a horny housewife.
More bad direction: Cinderella is apparently now a kooky clutz who falls down a lot, which isn’t at all funny, just annoying…and, not very respectful to the fine actress, Sarah Russell, who plays her. And, as for the Witch…well, Berry really drops the ball with the Witch, played here by the very talented Porscha Shaw who despite all her gifts as a young actress, is very much miscast in this role which really needs to be played by an older actress with strong comedy chops. Ms Shaw has a great voice and she can be very funny as evident by seeing her in other shows, but the Witch is a Dame/Broad type of character…bitter but also acidly funny. Frankly, it’s a middle aged actress role and Ms Shaw is too young to portay any of those things.
She’s also saddled with two awful costumes (Mittel European charwoman as Ugly Old Witch/Solid Gold Dancer as Younger Version) and her final exit, after the dramatic “Last Midnight” number was ludicrous. In the story, the Witch, angry and emotionally crushed by the world, demands that “Mother Earth Goddess” take her and in every version of the production I’ve seen up to now, that means the Witch is taken/destroyed/killed and disappears into the earth/a big puff of smoke. Here, Bill Berry has her dramatically sing the last line of the song, then casually walk off stage like she was off to the local Applebees for appetizers and a wine spritzer. It was anti-climatic and cheap….the 5th Avenue has traps in their floor! Why not have the Witch descend into the ground?!?!? So ridiculous.
So, while I still love this story and Sondheim’s gorgeous songs, I can’t recommend this messy, poorly conceived and directed production that more resembles the work of a minor community theater than a nationally recognized professional musical theater company. Which is sad and disappointing.