INTO THE WOODS

Fiasco Theatre Company’s re-imagined revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods is the most thrillingly imaginative production I’ve seen of the 1987 triple-Tony-winner, and trust me … I’ve seen a forest-ful of Into The Woodses, fourteen in all since the First National Tour stopped at the Ahmanson in 1989.

Into_the_Woods4_print With only a few, relatively minor cuts to the original, Fiasco gives audiences the whole magical shebang, albeit stripped down to a cast of a mere ten (compared to Broadway’s original nineteen), and with a full orchestra having been replaced by a single onstage pianist, most of the cast play not only play two or three different roles, they also join in when needed on assorted musical instruments.

The story and songs are exactly the same as those that first captivated Broadway audiences a quarter century ago, and even before that when Into The Woods had its pre-Broadway World Premiere at The Old Globe in 1986, a fact which gives its return to San Diego’s premier regional theater bona fide Event Status.

Into_the_Woods5_print Act One still magically combines several of the Brothers Grimm’s best-loved Fairy Tales, followed by a second act that explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after.”

Lapine’s ingenious book takes well-known characters Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, adds in an original pair of its own (a childless Baker and Baker’s Wife) along with a Witch, and then has them meet and interact while on a variety of missions that have sent them journeying Into The Woods.

Cinderella attends her ball (though here it is a festival lasting several days), Jack goes off to sell his beloved cow Milky White, Red Riding Hood leaves to visit Grandma’s house, and Mr. and Mrs. Baker set off in search of four magic ingredients which the Witch says will enable them to conceive a child.

By the end of the first act, all the characters have not only become acquainted, their fairy tale happiness has been assured—until the narrator’s Act One curtain line (“To Be Continued”) alerts us that there is more, much more, to come.

Sondheim’s songs go from his signature “where did that note come from?” ditties (“On The Steps Of The Palace”) to instantly hummable ballads (“Children Will Listen”) to the jaunty title song, and his lyrics are both clever (“If it were not for the thicket. A thicket’s no trick. Is it thick? It’s the thickest. The quickest is pick it apart with a stick.”) and profound (“Careful the things you do. Children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen.”).

No other Sondheim musical seems to lend itself to a “director’s concept” production better than Into The Woods, and no production I’ve seen prior to Fiasco’s, which debuted last year at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, matches the ingenuity that directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld bring to the project, a fact that should surprise no one who caught the duo’s six-actor Cymbeline at Santa Monica’s Broad Theatre in 2012.

Into_the_Woods17_print It’s clear from the moment the audience enters the Donald And Darlene Shiley Stage that this isn’t going to be just any old Into The Woods, for not only are all ten cast members (and pianist Matt Castle) already onstage chatting amongst themselves, scenic designer Derek McLane has covered the upstage wall with giant intersecting piano/harp strings to take the place of trees and scattered about various musical instruments, along with multiple tables, chairs, and trunks, and assorted paraphernalia whose many uses we will soon discover.

From the opening words “Once upon a time,” it becomes clear as well that the role normally played by a ubiquitous Narrator will be taken over by alternating cast members, necessitating one of the two cuts I noticed in Lapine’s book, since there will be no Narrator to sacrifice later on. (Gone too are the aphorsims offered by assorted supporting characters at the stroke of each midnight gone.)

We soon discover that there’ll be doubling and tripling up on roles, with some gender/species-blind casting thrown in for good measure. A pair of Princes will gender-bend as Cinderella’s stepsisters, Jack’s mother will be Cinderella’s stepmom as well, Cinderella will get to play Red Ridinghood’s Granny, Red will don golden locks—actually a knit cap—as Rapunzel, Jack will double as the King’s Steward, and busiest of all will be Rapunzel’s Prince/Cinderella’s stepsister Florinda sporting a cowbell to play a very human-looking Milky White. Finally, as tradition dictates, Cinderella’s Prince will also be the Wolf who puts the lascivious make on Little Red. (Directors Brody and Steinfeld deserve applause simply for figuring out how to divvy up so many roles among six performers, since only the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, the Witch, and Mysterious Man play single parts.)

Into_the_Woods14_print The directorial duo are so imaginative as to render adjectives like ingenious and clever gigantic understatements, from the cinched curtains (still on a rod) that transform a pair of bearded princes into bearded stepsisters, to a pyramid-shaped ladder that serves as a castle, to a dress mannequin that takes the place of the tree Cinderella’s mother inhabits (with a quartet of female cast members giving Mom her voice), to the taxidermied wolf head that turns Prince from human to lupine, to a feather duster that becomes a gold egg-laying hen and sheets of paper folded in half to become birds, to the stick horses the Princes mount before leaving their “stallions” in the care of a couple of front-row spectators, to …

The list of inspired touches goes on and on and on.

Even those who have grown tired of the actors-as-musicians concept that made John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd so innovative will appreciate how musical director Castle has re-orchestrated Sondheim the better to allow cast members to join in when needed on cello, guitar, banjo, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, drum, and percussion, a task to which cast members rise, and then some. (A clever touch is having certain instruments and instrumentations fit particular characters, e.g. the bluegrassy guitar/banjo combo in Jack’s numbers.)

Because there’s no great big orchestra underscoring dialog or backing up performers, this is that rare big-stage Into The Woods where every single Sondheim lyric can be heard as crystal clear as the words of Lapine’s book, insuring that emphasis rests firmly and consistently on character and storytelling.

Into_the_Woods12_print Not surprisingly, the Fiasco gang (whose core of six met not all that long ago as students in Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA program) prove themselves expert thespians. That they can bow, strum, and pound and sing quite credibly is icing on a very tasty cake.

I absolutely loved Woods’ sexy co-director Steinfeld and the incandescent Jessie Austrian’s takes on the now iconic Baker and Baker’s Wife, the longtime fellow grad students, friends, and costars’ authentic rapport making for an especially resonant “It Takes Two,” and since Austrian is married in real life to her handsome Into The Woods Prince Brody, the same can be said for “Any Moment,” the adulterous couple’s post-coital duet.

Into_the_Woods8_print Alison Cimmet gives us a Witch who is both fabulous and rooted in reality, and though Paul L. Coffey’s Mysterious Man doesn’t get to double as Narrator, he makes the wry most of what is now a cameo role in addition to proving himself an expert musician.

The rest of the cast get to double and triple up, which allows the sextet two-to-three times the fun had by any of their predecessors whilst journeying Into The Woods.

Princes Brody (Cinderella’s) and Andy Grotelueschen (Rapunzel’s) get arguably the production’s most exciting assignments, the former a sizzlingly seductive Wolf and the latter a scene-stealingly adorable Milky White (whose reaction to Jack’s confusion between Butcher and Baker doubles the laugh quotient of an already funny Jack-ism). As for Jack, they don’t come any more winningly dimwitted than Patrick Mulryan’s, whose beefed-up role as the Steward makes a stronger impression than any I’ve seen before.

Into_the_Woods6_print As for the ladies, Emily Young’s sassy Red Ridinghood and her drolly comedic Rapunzel are both gems, Claire Karpen not only gets to be a luminous Cinderella but has great fun as a grizzled Granny, and Liz Hayes turns Jack’s mother into one sharp cookie matched by her original take on Cinderella’s vain and vapid stepmother.

Lisa Shrivner’s lively choreography complements Brody’s and Steinfeld’s direction to perfection, songs and dances performed to Castle’s and Galgano’s smart new orchestrations. (Cast member Austrian is dance captain.)

In addition to McLane’s set, Fiasco’s Into The Woods’ supremely original production design features “Let’s put on a show” costumes by Whitney Locher, dazzlingly varied lighting effects by lighting designer Tim Cryan, and Darron L. West’s pitch-perfect sound design.

Michael Perlman is assistant director. Marcy Victoria Reed is stage manager.

Completing stage management and production staff at The Old Globe are assistant stage manager Jennifer Wheeler Kahn and stage management interns Liz Fiala and Carmen Quinones, and assistant director J. Scott Lapp, assistant scenic designer Sean Fanning, assistant costume designer Charlotte Devaux, and assistant lighting designer Amanda Zieve.

Into_the_Woods7_print Sunday evening’s rapt audience, from elementary school kids to great-grandparents and every age in-between, made it abundantly clear what a crowd-pleaser Fiasco Theatre Company’s Into The Woods is, and how smart The Old Globe was to bring it to the very theater where the Sondheim/Lapine masterpiece first saw the light of day through forest leaves some twenty-eight years ago.

Though this reviewer has probably not yet seen his last Into The Woods, he may well have seen the very best of them all, or at the very least, the most uniquely fabulous Into The Woods to date. Trust me. These are woods any musical theater lover will most definitely want to go into.

Donald And Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Through August 17. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00. Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 619 234-5623
www.oldglobe.org

–Steven Stanley
July 27, 2014
Photos: Jim Cox

Donald And Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
www.oldglobe.org

–Steven Stanley
July 27, 2014
Photos: Jim Cox

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