Eleasha Gamble, from left, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland. Photo | Joan Marcus

Stripped-down ‘Into the Woods’ makes Sondheim accessible

By Bob Abelman

It seems as if most theatergoers either have a love or hate relationship with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Since the 1970s, Sondheim has taken all that is simple, predictable and harmonious in the American musical and transformed it into something quite the opposite. His creations blur the line between lyric and dialogue, fill the air with a dense and steady stream of discordant sounds and images, and offer stories that are as complex as the people who populate them. Some get it; some don’t care to.

Regardless, patrons approach productions of Sondheim and librettist James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and was recently turned into a star-studded film, as if it were children’s theater.

Because the Tony Award-winning “Into the Woods” intertwines the familiar plots of several well-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale characters – including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella – parents often bring their wide-eyed tikes to the theater, who arrive expecting a coddling bedtime story but leave tearful and traumatized by intermission.

The show may revolve around a Baker and his wife venturing into the woods in an effort to reverse the magic spell that has kept them childless, but it bears all the foreboding theatrical trademarks typical of Sondheim musicals. Put Sweeney Todd in lederhosen and brightly colored socks and he is still the demon barber of Fleet Street.

But the significantly stripped-down Fiasco Theater version of “Into the Woods,” which originated at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey in 2013, had an Off-Broadway run, and is currently on national tour and at Playhouse Square, is different.

Although the story and score remain intact, they are delivered through delightfully inventive storytelling devised by co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Instead of characters, we are introduced to likable actors who are play-acting and whose playfulness tempers much of the show’s revelations about the dark underbelly of “once upon a time” and effectively blunts some of Sondheim’s sharp edges and keen intensity.

And playing pretend diminishes much of the play’s notorious pretention.

Scenic designer Derek McLane has fashioned a stage that is conducive to play-acting, for it resembles the cluttered storage attic of an eccentric Aunt, where set pieces, props and character-defining bits of costuming are fabricated from found objects and distressed artifacts compiled in corners.

Locations like the woods and off-stage characters like the Giant are imagined with the assistance of Christopher Akerlind’s clever lighting, Darron L. West and Charles Coes’ sound design, and the audience’s willingness to play along.

An inconsequential character (Cinderella’s father) in the original work is roguishly replaced with a framed portrait stand-in, a scary creature (the Wolf) is played by an actor holding up a piece of tepid taxidermy, and a comparatively dull character’s narrative dialogue (the Mysterious Man) is shared by more interesting characters.

And instead of an orchestra, the 11 players accompany each other on an up-right piano (masterly performed by understudy Sean Peter Forte), cello, oboe, trumpet and a range of make-shift percussion instruments that are scattered about the stage.

The show is so stripped-down that the actors – most of who play multiple medieval-era fairy tale characters – arrive in period underwear and chat with the audience before the play begins.

This “Into the Woods” is extremely enjoyable and it makes Sondheim’s work so very accessible. But that comes at a cost. Several in fact.

Though charming, musical accompaniment in the place of full orchestration dumbs down Sondheim’s rich compositions, particularly “Hello Little Girl” and “No One is Alone.”

In casting talented performers whose personality and stage presence take priority over the rarified vocal skills required to make the most of Sondheim’s difficult songs, those songs suffer.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Riding Hood, Darick Pead as Milky White the cow, Eleasha Gamble as the Baker’s Wife, and Philippe Arroyo as Jack are wonderful. But only Laurie Veldheer’s “On the Steps of the Palace” as Cinderella, Vanessa Reseland’s “Last Midnight” as the Witch, and Evan Harrington’s “No More” as the Baker stand out.

Also, for the Sondheim aficionados among us, blunting Sondheim’s sharp edges, softening the show’s keen intensity, and side-stepping its pretentiousness sort of misses the point of performing a Sondheim musical.

The payoff is that the children and naysaying adults in attendance were actually at a Sondheim production they could fully appreciate. Bring on “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” CV

Related: Former Clevelander Wolf backstage star in ‘Into the Woods’

On stage

WHAT:  “Into the Woods”

WHERE:  Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through Jan. 29

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Jan. 12, 2017.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Lead image: Eleasha Gamble, from left, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland. Photo | Joan Marcus