TheaterHop: Into the Woods

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Too old for fairly tales, eh? The Columbia Musical Theatre Society presents Into the Woods‘ long, jaunty ride through Mother Goose’s canon. Bwog’s theatre correspondent Ginia Sweeney reviews the play and wonders how much shorter it could’ve been.

I’m going to try to keep this review short because I’ve just had to sit through an absurdly long musical and I don’t want to subject you to the same tedium. Someone should have told Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that a mash-up of classic fairytales with a few extra plot twists can only sustain an audience’s attention for so long. I’m not sure how long that is, but it’s something less that two hours and forty-five minutes.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. The Columbia Musical Theatre Society has pulled together a rather impressive and large scale production of Into the Woods, and Thursday night’s performance will be followed by two more—at 3 and 8 p.m.—on Friday, in Roone Arledge Auditorium. I have few complaints besides the sheer length of the show.

Into the Woods intertwines four fairytales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel—into one winding story where characters are constantly venturing “into the woods” for one reason or another. A narrator (Thomas Anawalt CC’09) is there to help the audience and, frequently, increase the meta-factor of the show with asides like, “as is often the way in these tales…”

To lend coherency to the tale, a baker (played by Michael Snyder CC’10) and his wife (Gilli Messer BC’10) are thrown into the mix. They desire a child but are unable to conceive due to a long standing curse cast by the bitter witch living next door (Jamie Rubenstein BC’10). If they want the curse lifted, the witch says, they must fetch her four artifacts, one from each of the fairytales. So, the two set out into the eponymous woods with their mission.

In the meantime, revisionist fairytales are going on everywhere. Jack, recast as a half-dolt (aptly portrayed by Benjamin Velez CC’10) and his horribly irritating, screechy mother (Becky Greenstein BC’10) are without food and must resort to selling their dry cow—also Jack’s best (and only) friend. Cinderella goes to her mother’s grave rather than her fairy godmother in search of a way into the prince’s festival, and it is her own shame at her social position rather than a midnight time limit that makes her flee from the prince. Rapunzel sings from the top of her tower, and seems to be satisfied with washing and combing her hair all day. Little Red Riding Hood gorges herself on the food she is delivering to her grandmother, and finds herself “scared and excited” about the wolf, in a thinly veiled deflowering scene. Fortunately, the stories used here preserve the Grimm Brothers’ original gore, so you can look forward to a fair amount of blinding by various disgusting methods.

Although the cast is generally talented, the standout performance was by Austin Smith CC’10. As Little Red’s wolf, he prances about the stage in a rather sloppily made costume, simultaneously creepy and seductive. As Cinderella’s prince, he is regal and charming; as he says at the end of the show, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Undoubtedly some of the best scenes in the whole show are between the two princes, Smith and Kieron Cindric CC’08, singing of their lust for various princesses. Smith’s voice is velvety and resonant , and he is utterly comfortable in his role.

There is not enough plot to carry the 1.5 hour first act, which ends with a conclusive happily-ever-after ending, only for the story to be continued—and rather preposterously, at that—with a second, darker act.

Into the Woods is an impressive production for college students with only a few technical glitches. (Poor Jack had to sing a whole song unmiced!) If it had been half the length, I think I would have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Performances at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Roone Arledge Auditorium. Tickets available at Lerner Box Office.

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  1. DTCU

    Bwog writers: did it ever occur to you that criticizing the well-established playwright of a show being produced by community theatre is kind of absurd? If a college puts on a crappy production of Hamlet, do we blame Shakespeare? If your community theatre sucks at Waiting for Godot, do we pick on Beckett?

    • Well

      The author isn't saying that the show is bad, just that it's too long. Unless this performance unnecessarily elongates the show from the original, the only way to make it cmts's fault is by 1) blaming them for not picking a shorter show or 2) blaming them for not cutting it down. Both of which may be valid, but neither of which are points the author of this review makes. The only reason people don't criticize Becket and Shakespeare are because they're Becket and Shakespeare. The fact that many people cut down Shakespeare's plays when they are performed could be seen as an implicit statement that the original is too long. Which is exactly what this person said.

    • in response to #1  

      the author realized what you're saying. It's you who didn't realize what s/he was saying. S/he said the show was bad because of sondheim, and specifically not because of the bad college acting. Got it? Not the other way round.

      does this mean Sondheim's ITW is bad? Could such a daring conclusion be possible in columbia's totalitarian dictatorship of thought? or maybe, just maybe, are we allowed to think for ourselves and liberate ourselves from the notion that famous people always, unfailingly produce good works.

  2. damn  

    this show and production team are filled with varsity show people. yuck. what was the set light? how were the lights? how many people went to see it?

  3. blah

    I want the dirt on who/what was good and who/what was bad.

  4. seriously,  

    Bwog, this is not a review. There's about four paragraphs of summary, and you mention that Austin did a great job (which he always does). Where's the review, guys? Seriously, you've told me almost nothing about the performance except its length, which you whine about for no good reason. Two hours and 45 minutes...You victim! Just think, you could've been watching Waterworld and instead you had to watch the most talented people on Columbia's campus. A lamentable fate.

  5. yo'  

    peoples are getting maddd defensive up in hurr...

  6. get it right  

    Its "excited and scared" not "scared and excited". This is Sondheim. You can't fudge the lyrics.

    And frankly I have to ask what kind of theater critic is surprised that Into the Woods is long? I have to say that while it was long, it was well paced. To get through an unabridged ITW in less than 3 hours is impressive.

    Also, why are all of the actors parenthetically credited for their roles except for the four fairy tale characters (Jack, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red)? Did you find their performances so atrocious that you've omitted they're names as to shield them from shame? Because I must say that all four were good, though Ms. Peskin and Mr. Velez's performances were stronger.

    And one more thing:the microphone issues were more than just "technical glitches". They were atrocious. Giants in the Sky was far from the only issue (and might I add that Mr. Velez handled the situation very well). The mic's skipped throughout the show, cutting out a word of two of lyrics each time. And in a Sondheim show, where the music exists as a matrix for the lyrics, thats completely unacceptable.

    I felt like this show had its weak moments, but at least it wasn't a wash out like this review.

  7. fan

    Bwog, this review is a little bit ridiculous. First of all, Sondheim is a genius who makes every minute of music sung and every word spoken count. The show would not have benefited at all from being cut down or shortened. In fact, it would have suffered because so much of the show's emotional impact comes along as a result of the journey it took the characters to attain their various wishes. The only way to shorten this show is to tighten the pacing from scene to scene, which at times would have benefited this production.

    That said, I agree, this production was not perfect, though not for the reasons mentioned above. Mainly this production failed in its technical and creative aspects. With the exception of the last few scenes, I thought lighting was severely lacking. Sound was not perfect (though it never is, especially opening night), and while I appreciate the sentiment behind the set design, I didn't find it particularly effective. Maybe in a more intimate setting this set design would have worked, but in such a large space and considering the nature of this show, the stage could have benefited from more levels and a more interesting aesthetic.

    The talent, however, was top notch. The entire cast did a phenomenal job of singing a challenging score and delivering some nuanced performances, both comedic and dramatic. Stand outs were: Gilli Messer as the Baker's Wife, Michael Snyder as the Baker, Eva Peskin as Cinderella, and Ben Velez as Jack (all Vshow113 choristers!!). Gilli and Michael were not only magical together, but they each delivered their respective songs (which when paired together provide the main emotional and philosophical thrust of the show) to near perfection. Ben Velez's voice is beautiful and his comedic timing was spot on, and Eva Peskin really fell into her stride in the second act, particularly in No One is Alone, which was hauntingly beautiful. Austin Smith as Cinderella's Prince was of course fantastic (who knew he could sing??), and Jamie Rubenstein as the Witch is a welcome and pretty brilliant addition to the Columbia Theater community. Overall, a wonderfully cast production, and, given that all the aformentioned actors are sophomores, a good sign for the next few years of CU theater.

    I definitely recommend going, if you haven't already. But be warned: as this reviewer clearly failed to realize, this is a thinking man's show. Do not go with the expectation of being dazzled by big production numbers, catchy tunes, and neatly packaged moral conclusions. Listen to the lyrics, and be ready to think about their implications. This is a show about so much more than conflated fairy tales. It's about wishes, granted and abandoned, and the consequeces that come along with them; it's about parental protection and childish innocence, about holding on and letting go; it's about human relationships on the most basic of levels. But mostly, it's about going into the metaphorical woods, entering the world of the unknown, the irrational, the lawless, and coming to that moment of realization only to emerge with a newfound sense of understanding. We all must enter the woods at some point, but we all must leave them as well. For to lose oneself in the woods is perhaps the most dangerous thing of all. It's pretty brilliant stuff, in my opinion, and it's all brought to the table under the guise of some of the most recognizeable and beloved children's tales. On the surface these stories seem happy enough, but after seeing this show, you might just want to re-evaluate the meaning of "happily ever after..."

    I apologize for the poorly stated nature of this response... I am not a theater critic, just a fan of what I saw last night.

    • heh  

      this review was actually better than the one posted by bwog...

    • I second  

      This review really is better than Bwog's.

      Also, at the risk of becoming a troll on this topic, I must ask: Bwog, did you seriously create a "Time the subtle thief of youth" tag for this review? Seriously? There aren't words to express the disgust that kind of pretension causes to well up in me. It's one thing to be pretentious when you actually know what you're talking about. But when you are obviously ignorant to the topic at hand, it just comes across as petulantly sophomoric.

  8. Stepsister!  

    No one mentioned Cinderella's stepsister! I don't remember her character's name or even the actor's name, but she was the one with straight hair (who had her heel cut off instead of her toes). Even though she didn't have a big part, her facial expressions were hilarious. She was a perfect example of someone who stayed in character all the time, even when the spotlight wasn't on her, because I found myself watching her whenever she was onstage and being thoroughly entertained by her mannerisms.

  9. Why were  

    all the bios so bland?

  10. dude  

    it's ridiculous-- 100% v-show 113&114-- we're onto you, Hannah Kass

  11. mmmmmmm  

    I just walked out after the first act. It was so boring, and production values were crap. My old high school put on a better show, and actually made me want to stay for the entire thing.

    No actors/actresses were anything spectacular, and the bad sound quality wrecked any chance we had to see if they had decent voices.

  12. 2010  

    Yeah, I just walked out after the first act as well. Seriously, a horrible, horrible production. Only decent thing was the cast (for the most part). Production values: set and lighting design, props, etc. were pitiful. And, since they weren't smart enough to open the balcony, they had us packed in to the ill-suited Arledge main floor. Seriously....if you were 5+ rows back, you could barely see a thing.
    Really, an embarrassment.

  13. interesting  

    Was that bit with Rapunzel's Prince being blinded supposed to be some kind of jab at King Lear? Because his costume was totally inappropriate for the part, but it DID look exactly like Chas Carey's Gloucester costume, right down to the cloth around the eyes... Did anyone else notice that?

    • interesting (again)  

      That was unclear... I know the blinding is in the script, it's just that the way they did it looked so similar to Lear that it crossed my mind it might be intentional.

  14. awful  

    Awful, awful review. Nothing about set, lighting, costumes, all of which were pretty awful. The only astute observation here was that Austin's wolf costume was sloppy, which is an understatement. BOTH of his costumes were ill-fitting and dull. He did an excellent job in spite of that, though.

    • to 21  

      I don't think the point of a review is to systematically cover every aspect of the show, but rather point out notably things. I thought this was pretty good and a welcome break from the pretentious reviews that bwog often publishes in which the writers can't restrain themselves from showing off how cultured and well-read they are.

  15. some defense  

    CMTS is a small budget theater group trying to put up a very large scale show. True the technical elements were far from perfect, but Into the Woods is a difficult musical to scale down.

  16. fan  

    I thought Little Red's performance was really phenomenal. I have seen this show put on several times before, and NEVER has the role been portrayed so well. Awesome job to the person who played her...i think she's a freshman? katie something?
    can't wait to see her in other stuff in the future.
    I didn't like the set design though. where the eff were the TREES. this is into the WOODS!

  17. wow  

    that second act was REALLY DEEP. who knew musicals could be so philosophical?

  18. alum

    i think you guys are on a little bit of the crack. the whole show was beautifully sung and the set was a welcome change from a thousand boring green trees. it was just a production for people who know into the woods and want to see something new done with it. i challenge you to name a recent columbia musical that was better.

  19. um...  

    um did any soul notice that the pit orchestra was kind of amazing? like more amazing than ever before...because I did.

  20. pbq  

    I saw the production on Friday night, and the cow fell apart! The poor actors were walking around carring a cow with three legs. It seemed to get fixed eventually, but the actors handled it admirably. That's showbiz... Ya never know when the cow's gonna break.

  21. tmz  

    Yeah! The pit was amazing! The band sounded great- I didn't even know Roone HAD a pit!

  22. question  

    Why is Ginia writing for both the Spec and Bwog? Why are Bwog's commenter's better than the reviewers themselves?

  23. lowend  

    the band had their shit together i must say

  24. melanie

    i thought that jack's mother was so funny! she was definitely the best part of the whole show!

  25. jenny

    i definitely thought that the stepsisiter with straight hair and jack's ,other stole the show!

  26. agree

    I agree with everyone criticizing the author of this piece. No need to add.

    I disagree with the praise of little red. that is a really great role and she made it boring, unfunny, and annoying. Her voice was not horrible, but in a cast of absolutely amazing singers, she was not up to par.

    The set was pretty disappointing, but beside that distraction that I thought the show was compelling.

  27. Jumbles  

    I have to agree that if there was an attention issue, either the person has a beef with Sondheim (bad taste) or the actors didn't do their job. Hamlet can be boring as shit, as has been mentioned. Unfortunately it can also devastate. Into the Woods can be devastating. And perhaps this performance wasn't quite that.

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