A Fairy Tale Mashup in "Into the Woods" at Playhouse Square

If you're used to attending Broadway touring productions at Playhouse Square and getting your socks blown off by lots of amazing set changes and special effects, you may be a bit let down by this Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods, now occupying the Connor Palace Theater. It is an intentionally bare bones type of production that, although quite lovely, never changes much for the duration of the show.

However, if you're a fan of fairy tales and fables and have always wished those stories of magic and monsters could be mashed together, this is the show for you. Featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, this staging is a far cry from most live versions and is nowhere close to the opulent film starring ("overrated") Meryl Streep.

In this telling, all the players gather on a stage cluttered with many random items from an old hoarder's attic — a tall stepladder here, a mannequin dress form there — and they use those items to weave many familiar tales into a story about, among other things, the pleasures and perils of pinning your future on a bean-based economy.

Yes, Jack sells his beloved cow for magic beans, and this becomes one of the story lines that works best, since Philippe Arroyo as Jack and Darick Pead as Milky White the cow develop a tender relationship. And Arroyo handles Jack's solo, "Giants in the Sky," with aplomb.

Joining Jack and his widowed mother in adventures are Cinderella and her sisters, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Granny, an all-purpose Witch, and the Baker and his Wife who are looking for a way to have a child. It's a whole gang of familiar characters, all in search of something better that might be "in the woods."

For those who haven't seen the show before (and there must be some), the intertwining stories in Lapine's book can quickly become muddled. This effect is magnified by this staging, since one is never completely sure which story we're in and which one we've just left. The task of sorting these elements falls to the lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. And while the lighting effects are sometimes stunning (the night scenes in particular), it sometimes isn't enough to separate one plotline from another.

That said, the talented cast has a ball since most of them are cast in multiple roles, throwing off one character for another even as they cross the stage. Oh, and they also play some instruments, since there is no pit orchestra. The music is anchored by the pianist (Sean Peter Forte, on this night), who pounds away on the sometimes-rolling keyboard as the others contribute musically as they are able.

Indeed, the mission of the Fiasco Theater company is to deliver actor-driven interpretation of plays, and Into the Woods offers the 11-person cast every opportunity to show off their chops. And most of them do a dandy job. Laurie Veldheer plays Cinderella splendidly, but she is upstaged by her sisters, Florinda and Lucinda, who are played by two dudes, Pead and Anthony Chatmon II, wearing curtain-dresses with the curtain rod still attached, a la Carol Burnette.

Lisa Helmi Johanson shares a couple nice duets with the Witch (Vanessa Reseland, on this night), "Our Little World" and "Stay with Me." And Eleasha Gamble does a wonderful turn on "Moments in the Woods" in the second act, when this plain woman kisses a prince and is confronted with the possibility of a more interesting life ("Who can live in the woods/and get what you wish/only for a moment ... ").

Only two characters fail to resonate in this production. As the Mysterious Man, who is actually the Baker's father, Fred Rose seems as ill-defined as his name implies. And in the protagonist role of the Baker, who is seeking to lose the curse put on his childless family, the charisma-challenged Evan Harrington never takes any interesting chances. As a result, this key role begins to fade into the background at times when he should be front and center.

Scenic designer Derek McLane has crafted a handsome playing area for the actors to romp inside, with a cascade of vertical ropes on the back wall morphing at times into a dense patch of forest. And co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld choreograph the actors' movements with what seems to the eye like easy-going precision.

Into the Woods is all about dreams and the reality of how those dreams often turn out, based on the decisions we make. In that regard, this production is a fine and inventive interpretation of this work. But at almost three hours with one intermission, and placed on a single unchanging set, it takes the resolve of a fairy tale hero to stay focused on these colliding yarns.Into the Woods

Through Jan. 29 at Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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