Twenty-eight years later, Into the Woods is still a mess but at least it has been steered into a staging concept that really works.

At its world premiere in 1986, on the exact same Old Globe stage where it has reopened for a summer run, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical seemed a complex tangle of simple stories, staggering through endless ruminations toward obvious conclusions. A year later, for its Broadway opening, nothing much had changed except lots more money had been thrown into the décor and room had been cleared for a star – Bernadette Peters ­ and her two new songs.

The musical’s admirers have kept the show afloat over the years and now there’s a film project with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp due out this Christmas. (Sondheim famously groused in The New Yorker about problems he was having with the Disney Studios, then quickly took it all back a few days later, presumably after the flacks got him under control.)

The Into the Woods cast at the Old Globe Thetre with pianist/musical director Matt Castle, Center. Jim Cox Photos

The Into the Woods cast at the Old Globe Thetre with pianist/musical director Matt Castle, Center.          Jim Cox Photos

The version now at the Globe, originated for the McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey by a couple of these actors, is aimed at an off-Broadway opening later this year.

Four familiar tales from the Brothers Grimm form the meat of Into the Woods. Jack sells the family cow for a handful of magic beans, Little Red Riding Hood loads up with goodies for Grandma, Rapunzel combs out her long hair and Cinderella gets the news that she won’t be going to the ball. A fifth story, fashioned by the authors as a link, introduces a baker and his wife, childless because of a witch’s curse that can be lifted if they bring together within 73 hours a list of key props from the other tales.

All is merry and bright for a first act, even with the bloody mayhem and the broken promises. If the morality gets a bit squishy, a useful sense of shared community responsibility does emerge and the big finale finds everybody reasonably happy.

Act Two, unfortunately, follows. The Giant, slain by Jack, has a surviving wife who wants vengeance and is stomping everything in her path until she gets it. Main characters start dropping like flies and the script goes into overdrive with the reiteration. Songs, long songs, natter on about what it all means and who is to blame. Scraps from the past offer hope for the future if anybody survives the floods of inner rhymes and chug-chug accompaniment. Never has a show taken longer to sum up so little and that’s a mighty big claim.

Liz Hayes, Noah Brody, Andy Grotelueschen and Claire Karpen in the Old Gloe Into the Woods revival.

Liz Hayes, Noah Brody, Andy Grotelueschen and Claire Karpen, left to right,  in the Old Globe Into the Woods revival.

(Pondering this second act, I was reminded of a finale that got it right. The 1956 Leonard Bernstein operetta Candide ends with a situation similar to this one – everybody just needs to accept that mistakes were made and it’s time to move on – celebrated with a single ringing anthem, “Make Our Garden Grow,” that splendidly does the job in about five uplifting minutes. Check it out.)

So that’s the piece, a slumgullion of good intentions, sophisticated angst and cunning antique characters intended to help us all move forward.

And, for the first hour or so, the Globe’s staging by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld actually works! It’s coherent, sturdy, comfortable in its realities and, mainly, it’s fun.

There’s always been considerable doubling in this piece, but Brody and Steinfeld have made versatility a key element of the show, with just five men and five women taking all the parts, often ignoring age, size, gender and even species. (Milky White the cow is played by just one of the guys with a bell around his neck.)

Everybody’s onstage all the time because, in addition to the acting, there are many odd jobs to do: Props and scenery to haul about, choruses to join, sound effects to provide. Also, several of the performers have musical duties, assisting the protean pianist/musical director/arranger Matt Castle, who plinks away endlessly and even helps out with a line now and then.

Patrick Mulryan, Ben Steinfeld, Claire Karpen and Emily Young, left to right, in Into the Wods at the Old Globe Theatre.

Patrick Mulryan, Ben Steinfeld, Claire Karpen and Emily Young, left to right, in Into the Wods at the Old Globe Theatre.

Paul L. Coffey delivers some acceptable licks on cello and a bit of banjo as needed when he’s not playing a mysterious stranger. Liz Hayes takes moments off from Jack’s Mother to fill in on the bassoon. And Emily Young, when she’s not posing prettily as Little Red or Rapunzel, delivers a…game attempt at a trumpet fanfare. There also are drums and bells and a French horn and so forth, all part of the general frolic. The only problems that arise come from the physical placement of Castle’s piano. When the upright soundboard faces the audience, other sounds, including the words, are threatened.

It’s very definitely an ensemble show, with everybody pitching in, an approach quite appropriate to the script. Co-Director Steinfeld does extra duty as the Baker, with the paltry results built into the role, but Jessie Austrian finds a lot of humanity in the Baker’s Wife. Miss Young, when she’s not blowing bugle calls, is terrific as a tough Little Red and OK as Rapunzel, more of a fluffy role. I wish Alison Cimmet well in finding more substance as the witch.

The other director, Noah Brody, is an oddly memorable wolf, though the stuffed prop steals scenes, and a delightful Prince, the one who gets the best line in the show: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Joined by Andy Grotelueschen, as his fellow prince, Brody also aces the best song in the show, “Agony.” Grotelueschen may capture the versatility prize, in fact. Both his Evil Sister and his Prince get to be blinded. And it’s he whose “moos” decorate the role of Milky White.

It’s hard to overpraise the scrappy ambience of this show, where an earthquake is suggested quite successfully by two actors holding corners of a shaking table. The scenery, by Derek McLane, is somewhat excessive – a piano motif with gleaming soundboards cascading down each of the wings and a curtain of parallel ropes upstage suggesting piano strings, all topped by a row of assortment crystal chandeliers.

But none of this stuff gets in the way of the players, who work with wooden boxes, rehearsal furniture, shadow screens and clumps of fabric. Whitney Locher’s costumes are in this style – timeless wherever – and Tom Cryan’s lighting design is as needed.

The title of the work, and its theme, use the woods as a metaphor for facing life. But this production also demonstrates that metaphors don’t really need Broadway budgets when they have the narrative firmly under control. Even the parts that go on way too long.

For me, one example makes the point precisely: Cinderella is helped by a flock of magic birds. In the 1986 Globe original, they were suggested by projections. Later, on Broadway, there were actually stuffed birds dangling down from the flies.

Right now at the Globe, Brody and Steinfeld use a couple of actors, fluttering pieces of white paper in their fingers as they chirp away.

I’d sit in a circle and listen raptly to that kind of story-telling any time.

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Welton Jones

Welton Jones

Welton Jones has been following entertainment and the arts around for years, writing about them. Thirty-five of those years were spent at the UNION-TRIBUNE, the last decade was with SANDIEGO.COM.

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