Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 12, $109
The Fiasco Theater shows that there is no such thing as too much Into the Woods in its utterly delightful, stripped-down version running at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. In the summer of 2012, the Public Theater presented an all-star production (Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, Donna Murphy, Jessie Mueller) as part of its Shakespeare in the Park season (redubbed Sondheim in the Park for the occasion), and Rob Marshall’s film, with a superstar cast (Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, et al.), is in theaters now and up for three Oscars. But the Manhattan-based Fiasco company, which was founded by a group of Brown graduates who “believe that it is only when artists are brave enough to risk a fiasco that the possibility exists of creating something special,” have indeed created something special, shining a new light on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy-tale mash-up, which earned ten Tony nominations back in 1988. There are no trees in this new version; instead, Derek McLane’s set consists of piano insides arranged along the sides and top of the stage, with thick, knotted crossed ropes in the back. Chandeliers hang over the actors and the audience as well. There is no orchestra; at the center of the stage, Matt Castle plays a movable piano, and through the course of the evening, other cast members add occasional guitar, French horn, trumpet, calliope, xylophone, bassoon, drums, miniature harp, cowbell, and triangle. All ten cast members are onstage through the whole show, several playing multiple roles; when they are not in the scene, they sit in the background, often looking as gleeful as the audience, taking joy in what is unfolding in front of them.
The once-upon-a-time story is about a baker (Ben Steinfeld) and his wife (Jessie Austrian) who learn that they are childless because of a curse placed on his family by a vengeful witch (Jennifer Mudge). To end the curse and have a baby, they must head into the woods and come back with a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. So off they go, encountering clueless Jack (Patrick Mulryan), who has been sent to market by his mother (Liz Hayes) to sell his beloved bovine (Andy Grotelueschen); Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young), who is bringing a basket of goodies to her grandmother’s (Claire Karpen) house; Cinderella (Karpen), who wants to go to the prince’s (Noah Brody) festival but is slaving for her wicked stepmother (Hayes) and vicious stepsisters, Lucinda (Brody) and Florinda (Grotelueschen); Rapunzel (Young), who has been imprisoned in a tower by the witch; and a mysterious man (Paul L. Coffey) who knows more than he is letting on. While the first act ends happily, things don’t go nearly so well in the second act, as a giant invades the kingdom, leaving a path of death and destruction in its wake.
The revival, directed by Brody and Steinfeld, has a ball simplifying the diverse elements, using inventive, low-budget stagecraft to maximum effect. Brody and Grotelueschen, as Cinderella’s stepsisters, hold a curtain rod in front of them to show off their “dresses” for the festival, and as a pair of princes they gallop with little horse heads on sticks (which they hand to audience members when they come to a stop). At one point the baker’s wife sits down on the floor in the aisle and peruses a Playbill. And Rapunzel’s castle is actually a ladder that is moved about the stage — and which nearly every actor walks under, tempting fate. There are plenty of sly nods to the audience, knowing glances, and, primarily, big smiles throughout. Oh, and there’s Sondheim’s simply divine songs as well, from “Hello, Little Girl,” “Maybe They’re Magic,” and “Agony” to “Witch’s Lament,” “Any Moment,” and “Last Midnight,” all delivered with an intoxicating glee, with scrumptiously playful orchestrations by Castle and Frank Galgano. But Fiasco, which has previously tackled Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and Cymbeline and will be bringing The Two Gentleman of Verona in Washington, DC, this spring, never lose sight of the show’s central theme — that happily ever after comes with a heavy price. But there’s no need to get too serious, as this is one endlessly fun trip back into the woods.