Theatre Review: INTO THE WOODS at The Ritz Theatre

Into the Woods has had many iterations since its debut 32 years ago at the Old Globe in San Diego.
Characters have come and gone, and even returned. Songs have changed. Additional songs have been added. Lyrics have morphed together, changed slightly or been scrapped altogether. A living being was represented by a prop and then later became alive again.
In the world of make believe and fairy tales, the ever-evolving aspect of storytelling coupled with the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful weaving of words and music can certainly be presented in different and often exciting ways. So, it’s a good bet that when you go see a show like Into the Woods, there is sure to be an interesting or unique interpretation or telling of the now classic musical.
Or, usually that would be the case.

Unfortunately, the version of Into the Woods playing at Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Twp., N.J. is neither interesting nor unique, plays as stale as a loaf of bread left on the Baker’s shelf for too long and is riddled with dry performances that fall short of the required energy for a production of this stature and enough directorial and technical missteps that it can’t just be chalked up to the fact that this review stems from a preview performance the evening before opening night.

In case you are unaware, Into the Woods is a craftily-written amalgam of Grimm’s fairy tale characters that tells their stories by intertwining them together. James Lapine’s book flows so magically with Sondheim’s music, that the stories of Cinderella, Jack, from Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and the Baker, his Wife and the Witch next door blend perfectly until all the characters reach a happily ever after… at the end of Act 1. In Act 2, the story takes a darker twist and Lapine and Sondheim tell a tale that is not often told – what happens following “happily ever after?” As is often the case, things are not as rosy as they seem and real-world problems invade the land of make believe, forcing the characters to face obstacles they never saw coming and deal with fate’s crushing blows or make irreversible and life-altering decisions.

While that story is told at Ritz Theatre Company, it misses the mark by a wide margin.
Starting with the performers, only Jennie Knackstedt (Witch), Jenna Lubas (Cinderella), Brittany Marie (Little Red) Anthony Crosby (Rapunzel’s Prince) and Robert Repici (Milky White) earn passing grades.

Knackstedt is wonderful all the way through. She has great stage presence, a killer voice and deftly handles the Witch’s complex character arc from start to finish. Every one of her songs was on point. She was fun with the Witch’s “rap” segment in the opening number, was appropriately angst-ridden and torn between furious anger and the tenderness that a parent has for a child in “Stay With Me,” and flat out dominates the space during her farewell number “Last Midnight.”
Lubas was excellent as Cinderella and handled limited spacing, costume conundrums and a lackluster collection of characters whom which she had to interact with aplomb and still carried off her songs beautifully.

Marie had Little Red’s character down cold, bouncing around the stage with the right mix of spunk and anxiety and understood where the pleasantly funny moments were in the script, something that shouldn’t have been, but was lost on most of her compatriots.
Crosby nailed the smarminess of Rapunzel’s Prince, and carried both “Agony” and its reprise.
As for Repici, he was guffaw-inducing as Milky White. His only line was “Moo.” And he was the funniest thing on stage. In a show littered with tremendously funny moments, the fact that the guy playing the cow was the only one who brought laugh-out-loud moments, should tell you all you need to know.

From there, it was all downhill.
Megan Ruggles (Baker’s Wife) and Joshua Bessinger (Baker) had zero chemistry. Their quest to have the Witch’s spell lifted from them lacked urgency. Neither were likable characters. Sure, they both can sing, but there’s more to a show then good pipes. Ruggles was especially befuddling, seeming disinterested at times and even once completely missing a cue to enter the stage, leaving the audience and the half-lit stage in silence for an uncomfortable number of seconds with the occasional attempt by the small offstage pit to play something, anything, to cover her miss.
Zachary Moore (Jack) is another pretty voice, but his acting was too one-dimensional. He had one emotion throughout the show – and never fluctuated in either direction. Michael J. DeFlorio (Cinderella’s Prince) at least understood the comedy of the script and his role. When he wasn’t singing, he was entertaining. But whether he was the Wolf chasing Little Red or the Prince chasing Cinderella – or other women – in Act 2, his songs were flat. Ryan Ruggles (Narrator, Mysterious Man) had me torn. He gave an excellent performance as the Mysterious Man, really finding the heart of that tragic character. But as the Narrator, he bored me. The Narrator needs to be a storyteller. Ruggles was a reciter. That doesn’t play at all to an audience.

As for the rest of the cast, they were – there. The ensemble had a couple of nice moments. A few foibles. And a bunch of non-descript moments in the dark. Which brings me to the technical side of things – this is where the production really took several steps backwards.Ultimately, the failings all fall on the director Craig Hutchings. As a director it is your job to notice every little detail that is not working and fix it – even the things that most audience members don’t see. But, when there are noticeable flaws in design, the director can’t take all the blame. They have to land at the feet of the designers as well.

The lighting for this production was as bad as I’ve seen anywhere. Yes, it’s the woods, and it’s supposed to be a little darker, but several songs, or parts of songs were sung with the actors not in any light at all. The entire front apron of the stage, where a good chunk of songs are sung, is not properly lit. The light was landing behind the actors. That’s a focusing issue. And for awhile I thought the Ritz didn’t have a spotlight, or it was broken, because there were soloists singing in dim or dark light without a spot. Then, all the sudden, in the middle of Act 1, it appeared. It was used sporadically through the rest of the show, but it needs to be used more so we can see the faces of the people who are singing to us. The actors couldn’t even try to find their light near the front of the stage because there was no light for them to find. Lighting Designer Jen Donsky needs to be able to see this from the house and fix it for the remainder of this run.

The set, itself, was a weak design. There were a dozen trees painted onto cutouts positioned around the stage. That’s all well and good, except they kept getting in the way. Entrances and exits on stage right were especially clunky as the darn tree that was positioned there partially blocked the path, forcing the actors to swing the curtain open to gain access and offering the audience a full view of back stage. The rest of the trees took up a lot of space, which limited the area for the actors to perform. There was a ramp in the middle of the stage, which is likely an homage to the original Broadway production. But, the difference was on Broadway, that incline was moved on and off the stage. At the Ritz, it exists the whole show and takes up half the playing space. Group numbers became one big cluster. It created an unnecessary traffic jam. Sight lines into the wings was not taken into consideration when the design was laid out, and as such I had a crystal clear view of every actor off stage left when they weren’t on stage. It was disheartening to see that such a simple thing like masking entrances was missed. But the most disturbing set item was Rapunzel’s tower. It’s a tree when the show opens, but in order for Rapunzel to climb up into it, it has to turn sideways, allowing her access to the opening, and then turn a second time to look like the tower. Saving Rapunzel from having to sit there the entire show, Hutchings had the tree/tower turn in the middle of another song playing in front of it, and had Rapunzel climb into place, and then turn the tower – all in plain view of the audience while a completely different scene was playing out. It was mind-boggling that this would be determined to be the best way to do this.  Bessinger, the same guy who played the Baker, doubled as a set designer.

As for the costumes, they were mostly well made and designed by A.J. Garcia. The only one that really bothered me was the Wolf. It was as if it was the last costume to be worked on and Garcia ran out of time. There was a wolf top and head piece, but nothing else. DeFlorio simply wore the rest of his Prince costume with it (and we could see the whole thing underneath the Wolf costume the entire time). So, the wolf had puffy white shirt sleeves and a shiny shirt under his faux fur.
One other negative was that Lubas has a crazy quick change from her Princess garb to the commoner’s clothing when she decides to go back in the woods in Act 2, and she could probably use more help backstage as she was forced to come on stage sans shoes because she couldn’t get it done in time with whatever help she had, if any. Garcia does get a gold star for the Witch’s costume which makes an onstage switch from hunchbacked old hag in a puffy robe to sexy temptress dress in one quick flip.

Hutchings staging was bad from the start. The entire first scene was cluttered. People could be seen moving on and off stage behind the three “houses” that represented the cottages of Cinderella, the Baker and Jack.In Act 2, he had the Witch sing her lament facing stage left as if she was singing to someone in the wings. He also had Rapunzel’s prince carry on a tree stump to offer a pseudo-Captain Morgan pose before the Agony reprise, and although this was a funny visual, that stump lived in the same spot downstage for almost the entire act, so that if you were seated anywhere close to the House left aisle, this stump blocked your vision of anything going on behind it.
Actors were bumping into each other as they tried to move around the cumbersome set pieces, and there really were no stage pictures until the very, very end, when they finished the final number in an off-center tableau before curtain call.

As for the sound, the mics and speaker system were pretty top notch. There wasn’t a problem hearing anything at all, so kudos to sound designer Matthew Gallagher for that. Although there was a strange idea of using the same voice modulator that is used for the Giant’s voice with the Baker’s Wife and the Witch at the end that really doesn’t work at all. Just let them sing. We should hear their actual voices. It’s the only thing this production really has going for it. To that end, music director Collin Maier deserves a lot of credit for the work he did with the singers. They mostly sounded good, which is probably the only saving grace for this production.

Sadly, I can’t recommend that you spend your money to see this production. You should save it in hopes the Ritz learns from this and steps it up a notch with their 34th season that begins in January.

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