Left bereft after an all-too-brief affair with a passing prince, the baker’s wife sings longingly, “Oh, if life were made of moments.” Any decent production of material as detailed as “Into the Woods” is going to feature, in every sense, “moments in the woods.” But, to borrow a phrase from Sondheim and Lapine’s previous outing, “Sunday in the Park With George,” the trick of making this study of (dis)enchantment work, is “putting it together.” Which is where dancer/choreographer Will Tuckett’s musical theater directorial debut comes unstuck.
The use of the well-known tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, plus the invented story of a childless baker and his wife, might make “Into the Woods” seem a relatively easy directorial proposition. Yet the intertwining of five narratives presents a huge challenge in terms of finding both balance and drive. And that’s just the first act.
The second half famously unravels the happy ending of the first. It also deepens and darkens the often exuberant tone that plays off the title song’s marching theme. For the musical’s redemptive conclusion to register, not only do tragic acts have to resonate, but everything has to be placed along a continuous, ever-building emotional journey. Tuckett’s direction fails to sustain that energy.
The first half is by far the stronger, distinguished by Lez Brotherston’s design. Certain elements, like the use of black and white gothic script on the false proscenium echo Richard Hudson’s work on the justly celebrated 1990 London premiere production. Yet Brotherston’s work is largely cohesive.
His eye for descriptive detail is most effective in his plush costumes and witty wigs. In his hands, Suzanne Toase’s plump Little Red Riding Hood is a moppet in a torrent of ringlets. In the usually overcooked role of Cinderella’s stepmother, Elizabeth Brice has a lovely sardonic ease beneath her jet-black, upswept pyramid coiffeur.
Despite a muffled sound design favoring the 15-piece band over often indistinct voices, certain performances cut through, notably Beverley Klein’s expert Witch.
From her perfectly paced rap onward, Klein, a musical theater specialist amid opera voices included in the cast, makes every moment count. Her selfish lullaby, “Stay With Me,” is the emotional highpoint, largely because Klein invests every phrase with carefully thought-through emotions and shapes the lyric to her own ends. Elsewhere, she alternates delicious underplaying with real comic zing.
Unfortunately, her sense of punctuating lines and moments is unmatched in other perfs. Even some of the best work, like Clive Rowe’s baker, whose “No More” is beautifully sung, ends up feeling too generalized. It’s as if everyone has been encouraged to find a prevailing tone and stick with it come what may.
Tim Mitchell’s snap lighting changes cap the musical numbers well but Tuckett doesn’t seem to know how to follow them. Unable to sufficiently command the flow, the director too often allows tension to plummet at the end of scenes as the actors merely dribble off-stage.
Gillian Kirkpatrick, who has sung both the beggar woman and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” is a confident Cinderella, but her mature sound and manner militate against the writing.
Gary Waldhorn’s narrator looks increasingly lost, as if it hasn’t quite been decided why he’s standing at any particular point on the stage. This problem becomes increasingly noticeable in the seemingly under-rehearsed second half, its emotional depths alluded to but unplumbed. From the clumsy staging of deaths, you’d never guess this show is about love, loss and responsibility.
The wit of Sondheim’s spryly set lyrics ensures there are laughs, but ultimately the production is neither as hilarious nor as heartbreaking as it should be, as if the entire evening had been marked “moderato.”