A Reimagined, Stripped-Down 'Into The Woods' Is A Sondheim Lover's Delight
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
For those who waited decades to see Into the Woods given the full Hollywood treatment, CGI giant and all, the current production of the musical at SHN's Golden Gate Theater may come as a letdown. But for those lovers of Stephen Sondheim's fantastic score and ingenious rhymes who may have felt like all those special effects in the movie version were more of a distraction than anything else, the Fiasco Theater's joyful, sardonic, and entirely delightful version of the show, done almost as a concert production with cheeky props and minimal set pieces, is sure to satisfy. This is a show, after all, chock full of Sondheim's signature wordplay, and blink-and-you'll-miss-them verbal gags, and in this production the ensemble gives you the time and space to appreciate each and every one.
Fiasco's production, currently on tour and playing here through April 2, won the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival in its New York run at the Roundabout Theatre, and arrives here with a brand new but highly rehearsed cast. And without giving too much away, some of their more clever innovations in this stripped-down version include a comical portrayal of the cow, Milky White, as a bearded, mooing man with no cow suit (Darick Pead), and the use of a pair of dresses hung from a curtain rod, along with two elaborate hats, to turn two male actors into Cinderella's stepsisters.
The success of a production like this, whose costumes and props feel as though they were yanked out of a carnival troupe's trunk at random just a few minutes before showtime, depends largely on the talent of the performers and the inventiveness of the director — both of which this one has in spades. The ensemble is just a tight 10 performers, most of them double-cast and all sharing the duties of narrator, and one pianist/musical director who spends most of the show on stage. All of the actors pick up an instrument at some point to accomplish the minimal orchestrations — a convention pioneered for Sondheim productions in the last decade by Scottish director John Doyle, namely his versions of Sweeney Todd and Company, both of which played on Broadway to great acclaim — and it gives the show a fresh kind of urgency knowing how much work each performer is doing at every turn.
Standout performances include that of Eleasha Gamble as the Baker's Wife, Evan Harrington as the Baker, Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, Anthony Chatmon as the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince, and Pead as the cow and Rapunzel's Prince. Also, Stephanie Umoh does a marvelous job as The Witch, giving the character's string of difficult, often wrenching songs all the necessary bravado and pathos.
But there is not a single weak link this cast, and co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who both serve as co-artistic directors of the Fiasco Theater, have done a fantastic job of pacing the show and filling in the more technically complicated aspects (the entrance of the lady giant, for instance) with low-tech stagecraft and sound effects that are funnier in their ingenuity than anything higher tech would be.
The gorgeous main set, by award-winning scenic artist Derek McLane, consists mostly of hundreds of thick ropes that resemble a forest of trees, and the suspended, dismembered soundboards of pianos.
Finally, though, it feels like Brody and Steinfeld understand that everything they do, and even the performers themselves, should and will be upstaged by Sondheim's enduring and beautiful songs, and the complex tale of wishes and consequences that this play tells. It is a play that straddles the naiveté of youth and the jadedness of adulthood with such grace that it's easy to forget this was a musical woven out of several very well known fairy tales. It's a story about longing, about how we compromise ourselves and our morals to reach desired ends, and about how life, however unpredictable and at times cruel, is still a journey that can be surprisingly rewarding.
As Sondheim himself said of the moral of the show, in this recent interview, "Happily ever after is in your hands, not in fate's hands." Also, it's about getting through a difficult time — and a complicated musical — as a team, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a cast as well oiled and in tune with each other as this one, accomplishing that great feat in just a couple hours.