Who knew a ladder, a hunting trophy, clever lighting, and a piano on rollers could transform Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy tale musical Into the Woods into a delightful, imaginative farce that makes you forget completely about its nearly three-hour runtime? It helps that Fiasco Theatre’s touring production, which arrived April 5 at Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theatre, also boasts a troupe of 10 incredible, adept performers equally good at hitting the high notes and literally banging the drum when the moment calls. (That doesn’t include the hardworking pianist Evan Rees, who fills in as a cow when his moment calls.) This scaled-back production, which abandons an orchestra and elaborate stagecraft for simple props you’d find in the recesses of an old theater, comparatively makes Rob Marshall’s recent 2014 film version feel even more bloated and overwrought than on initial viewing.
Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld directed the piece, with choreography by Lisa Shriver and music supervision by Matt Castle. With all the music coming directly from the stage players, the dizzying speed with which the actors toggle between performing their various roles and playing their various instruments makes you wonder about the complex flowcharts that must have overwhelmed rehearsal — not to mention the brilliant lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, which cleverly turns campground shadow puppets into the Wolf’s Red Riding Hood feast and the female giant’s dramatic second-act downfall.
Much of the credit needs to go to the ensemble itself: Anthony Chatmon II’s casual reminder to the audience at the top of the show to turn off our cell phones belied his dexterous capabilities once the lights were down. He fully embodies the sly, conniving Wolf with nothing more than a stuffed head mounted on a block of wood, before winking his way into the role of Lucinda, one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, thanks to an imaginative set dressing made up of a simple closet rod with two draperies affixed to resemble two dresses. Chatmon also plays Cinderella’s Prince, filling the iconic “Agony” with just the right mixture of pathos and glee. It helps that his singing partner as both stepsister and prince is Darick Pead, playing Rapunzel’s Prince and donning the absurd garb of Florinda while also leaving the audience in hysterics with his most memorable role: Milky White, the cow and best friend of Jack (Patrick Mulryan). Pead’s take on Milky White’s death scene is an especially hilarious highlight.
As a piece, the very setup of Into the Woods can be problematic — the first half focuses on the main characters fulfilling their wishes while the second caters to the very notion of being careful what you wish for — but Fiasco’s imaginative staging and incredible performances put those issues to rest for the most part. The giddy joy of the first act gives way to some thrilling emotion in the second, with stand-out moments coming from the Cinderella-led (Laurie Veldheer) “No One is Alone” and the Witch’s (Stephanie Umoh) “Last Midnight” farewell.
If you’re living in Los Angeles and wishing for some inventive, joyous theater, run to Into the Woods, if only to see what magic can be found in the most ordinary household props. Just wait until you see the singing birds.