It’s a rare thing, the production that manages to give you pause about a familiar musical based on even more familiar stories, and yet, with just 10 actors and a handful of musical instruments (and instruments not quite musical yet musically instrumental), the plucky Fiasco Theatre in conjunction with the Roundabout Theatre Company has restored Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 27-year-old musical into a wildly inventive, emotionally gut-punching, delightfully off-kilter production.
One has to believe that a stripped-down Into the Woods reliant on the power of imagination isn’t a novel concept—especially in college theater, where unnecessary re-interpretations are always in vogue—but Fiasco has managed to craft an insightful, folksy interpretation of the text that strips the fairy tales of their whimsy in favor of the actual pathos of the thing. (See: Patrick Mulryan’s tearduct-bursting take on ”Giants in the Sky.”)
The physical notions of re-invention are simple but well-executed: The Wolf (Noah Brody, a co-director) merely holds an actual wolf’s bust, and yet ”Hello, Little Girl” becomes an infinitely more delectable interior monologue made more believable by the very presence of the animal; Milky White (Andy Grotelueschen) is a schlub with a suitcase, and yet the added performance becomes one of the show’s highlights, and not just for obvious comic reasons; Cinderella’s mother is four women in harmony, and yet the typically undervalued moment becomes a haunting, beautiful one. With shadows, lights, and ladders, the production also boasts the best giant I’ve ever seen—the climactic slaying is a moment of pure stage magic, an incredible 15-second sequence that deservedly elicited an audience roar as soon as she tumbles into the mud.
Two hours and 40 minutes fly by when you’re unsure what surprises will come next, be they a question of props or simply how the ten performers will pull double duty to play all the characters (the Princes play the Stepsisters, Little Red doubles as Rapunzel, etc.). The anticipation of innovation casts a giddy layer of fun over the whole proceeding, and Derek McLane’s attic-chic set design , Whitney Locher’s ageless costumes, and Christopher Akerlind’s clever lighting help continue the surprises. Occasionally the creativity can feel inconsistent—a few early songs (like Jack and his mother’s verses in the prologue) are played on acoustic guitar before the alternative soundscape is ostensibly abandoned entirely—and certain cast members demonstrate a completely different vocal prowess than others.
But it’s easy to forgive these flaws as their perpetrators are delivering strong acting performances that demand thoughtful attention. Emily Young’s Little Red Ridinghood, Claire Karpen’s well-acted Cinderella, and Andy Grotelueschen’s delightful cow-prince-stepsister trifecta are among the best, but it’s unfair to break apart what’s clearly a true ensemble creation (it also helps that the typical showboat role also fades into that chorus, thanks to Jennifer Mudge’s strong yet subdued Witch). Co-directors Brody and Ben Steinfeld (who gives life to a wonderfully mature Baker) have provoked their actors to remember that fairy tales are only as strong as the people who are telling them. A