Something about last week—Tuesday night, Wednesday noon—made me want to see the Princeton University Players’ production of Into the Woods. I wanted to sit in the dark, my mind shocked into silence by way of bright sensory overload. I wanted the good guys to win—that elusive fantasy reserved these days for children and librettists. I wanted parents to have flown in and to have brought flowers. I wouldn’t have cared if the show wasn’t very good; at least I would have borne witness to something earnest and well-intentioned. But the show wasn’t bad at all, and I even found myself quite specifically rooting for the Witch (Danielle Ivory) to fall mug-first from Rapunzel’s (Aimee Mungovan) tower. That’s a frustration I’ll take right now—harmless and fleeting.
I have tremendous trouble getting past the visual distaste of student theatre—the inevitable compromises in casting, the costumes reminiscent of a working suburban mother’s artifice the night before Halloween—hurriedly but handily assembled. The opening of Into the Woods—laying out the exposition for a trinity of familiar fairytales—immediately accosts the audience with a slightly grotesque three-way spectacle. Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters (Erica Duke and Erica Andersen) look like second-rate impersonators of Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry. The witch looks like a creature that should get her ass back to the Terrace taproom, where she would probably bump into me with her fat-girl tits and spill my beer. This sort of nose-wrinkling visual is usually accompanied by brassy vocal bombast, as the first row’s collective hair is blown off by a sophomore from Forbes who wants to show the audience just how very badly she wants to make it big.
Thanks to a fourteen-piece orchestra in an unnecessarily intimate venue, and the fact that the production could not afford microphones, there was a distinct lack of that aural sock-knocking I look for in a musical. The sound issues were a particular problem in the larger ensemble numbers, like the opening, where the three-way vocal duel just plain overwhelms, and you can’t understand a word anyone says. When I couldn’t hear Cinderella, I was pretty sure she was crying for a mike. At first I thought that no one—with the exception of proven Katzen-stars Aimee Mungovan and Amy Coenen—had any meat behind their upper register, like the whole show was out of their range. I was proved overly critical and uncharitable when the cast one-by-one proved their vocal mettle in the much more satisfying second act. Unfortunately, I couldn’t blame the audio shortcoming on human beings on stage, and instead had to chalk one up to PUP’s limited resources.
Director Marisol Rosa-Shapiro ’07 did well with those limited resources. In adjusting a show (which she obviously understands and loves well) to the limits of stage and production, she achieved a particularly endearing campiness. Jordan Flowers ’05 (Prince Charming/Wolf) was a champion of that campiness, mugging like Mario Lopez in a made-for-TV Greg Louganis biopic. He bears the show’s onerous comic burden—making up for countless, specifically unfunny one-liners. If Rapunzel’s Prince (Andrew Saxe ’08) doesn’t sparkle, he does have a beautiful voice, which heightens the weird silly Jean val Jean v. Inspector Javert aspect of the “Agony” duet. Charming provided that special bombast I was looking for—and deliberately, too.
The stepmother (Amadea Britton) should have taken her cue from Prince Charming. She played much of her part straight and emotional, when she should have made good, farcical use of her character’s comedic potential.
My date left at intermission; he missed all the good stuff. I don’t blame him for leaving: the first act dragged. The characters moved on and off and around the stage in a constant barrage of fairytale “fun.” It was Saturday morning fun with Sunday morning values: preachy and constantly teaching annoying lessons about resourcefulness and self-respect. Despite the best efforts of the absolutely delightful Dan Kublick ’07 (Narrator/Mysterious Old Man), who was goofy, tender, and right-on, I was pretty sure I hated the show at half-time. The witch needed to own the first act of this show and she didn’t. Except for the fact that she couldn’t enunciate through her rubber witch mask, her performance was entirely competent. Perhaps it’s just the unfair standard established by Rapunzel’s heavenly musical emissions—clear as a bell—but it seemed that the Witch couldn’t belt out her numbers with the requisite starlet ass-kicking. It was clear that she found herself to be the star of the show, but she couldn’t back it up—her confident flair was completely absent of substantive charisma.
Mercifully, someone in the production didn’t find her to be the star of the show, and the final call was given to deserving baker and his wife. The Baker’s Wife (Amy Coenen ’07) outclassed everyone on the stage; her capable performance was tender and beautiful. And she’s got the starlet pipes I’ve been looking for—I can’t wait until the PUP powers that be let her out of her apron and into her own. The Baker (Rob Walsh ’07) could stand up to Amy both vocally and emotionally and lent his role a dearly stalwart quality. In their care, the second act redeemed the show.
For a while, the second act bled, preachy and unpleasant. I wanted to be buoyed—and while I anticipated a happy ending, the frustration of the second act made me question its arrival. Have faith, though – while the happy ending may tarry, it comes indeed.
A series of winning songs—musically and emotionally satisfying—build toward the finale. After particularly stellar contributions from the Baker’s Wife, the Baker, and the Mysterious Man, Little Red Riding Hood (Christine Ritzius) tops off her strong performance with a perfectly adorable little spell of tears, the company took the stage for a warm and rousing finale. I felt nostalgia for some place I’d never been.
I was often dismayed by the interjections of the real world in my musical fairy-tale: marital strife, premature death, intermittent sadness and violent destruction. Into the Woods wasn’t the fantastic, childish escape I was after. Instead, the real world – along with real emotion – seeped into the show, and provided enough of an emotional extension for a light catharsis and a warm-hearted nostalgia: I teared.
The Princeton University Players’ production of Into the Woods plays at the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau November 11-13 at eight o’clock. There is a two o’clock matinee on Saturday the thirteenth.