The first disappointment is the stage. Into the Woods is a fairy-tale musical, and yet set designer David Rockwell has opted for minimalism: the actors stand and sing in front of a forest of uniform, branchless tree trunks, each with holes that allow moonlight to pass through. That accounts for the entirety of the set. This is a world of castles and witches and giants in the sky, none of which is evoked in what we see. Into the Woods should be spectacular and feel immersive. Neither effect is achieved here.
The blocking, too, is awkward. Most of the scenes are performed with actors standing in a line at the front of the stage. The woods are meant to be deep, transformative, distant enough to suspend the demands of society, but there is no sense of movement in this production. The result is two-dimensional and visually monotonous.
No respite will be found in the performances themselves. Though the cast is filled with strong actors, director Lear deBessonet has imbued all the action with the comedic sensibilities of a sitcom. These characters are absurd and should be played straight. Instead, the cast telegraphs that it is in on the joke, too lazy or too smug to commit to the gag. Further, this approach, which strikes me as cynical, drowns out the darker moments in the musical. Without the contrast of a bright, larger-than-life tableau, death loses its power to shock.
There are, mercifully, exceptions: Patina Miller is sincere as the Witch, and as a result, “Stay with Me” is a standout. And Jack’s cow (Kennedy Kanagawa), a puppet that is mostly bones, is a superb example of minimalism put to good use. But this is not enough, and this revival of Into the Woods, assembled with so little care, borders on insulting.
Into the Woods runs through October 16th at the St. James Theatre. 246 W. 44th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission.