“Into The Woods,” Stephen Sondheim has told us, was in part inspired by his desire to create “a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz,” and although that was just the initial spark, the Sondheim/Lapine musical mishmash of classic fairy tales resembles Oz in at least one way — it’s presented over and over again, at an accelerating pace.
It debuted on Broadway in 1987 — two pictures from that production:
then was revived on Broadway in 1997 and again in 2002, followed by Central Park in 2012 (the debut of any Sondheim musical in “Shakespeare in the Park.”)
Into The Woods the movie opened last month.
Now it is opening in Roundabout’s Off-Broadway venue, in a production by the Fiasco Theater, an ensemble known for their inventively bare-bones interpretations of the classics. The 10 actors take turns narrating; five of them play multiple roles. Many also play musical instruments, from oboe to banjo. (The 11th performer, Matt Castle, is the pianist and also the musical director.) Scenery is minimal — designer Derek McLane has created a backdrop that looks like a collage of carcasses from old pianos; perhaps the characters are not only in the woods, but inside a piano? There is an actual piano and a ladder and little else. The props are playful: The witch speaks to Rapunzel with a megaphone. The costumes are often minimal, merely suggesting a character: Andy Grotelueschen plays Milky White the cow by wearing a cowbell around his neck. The giant is, first, an unseen, reverberating voice, and then a shadow projection. Cinderella’s birds are pieces of paper held aloft and flapping by ensemble members.
The Fiasco’s version is, in short, fun, in a child-like way.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
Will it convince anybody to reconsider their view of the musical, whatever it happens to be? I doubt this. Fiasco’s “reimagining” of Sondheim’s musical is ultimately more like a restoring of the folk tales to the tone in which they are usually presented — far from Sondheim and Lapine’s intent in retelling Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The production is faithful enough in the first act, where Sondheim and Lapine cleverly and playfully pull together the classic tales by creating a new fairy tale of a baker and his wife, who can escape the witch’s curse and have children only if they give her:
a cow as white as milk
a cape as red as blood
hair as yellow as corn
a slipper as pure as gold
All this the baker and his wife accomplish by the end of the first act. Then the second act explores the consequences of their actions, and the impossibility of “happily ever after.” Here the tone is supposed to change, the fairy tales become adult stories of compromise, disappointment, moral ambiguity and ambivalence. Given all the stagecraft shenanigans, there is little sense that the baker and his wife exist as a contemporary couple in an adult world apart from the fairy tale characters. (Ironically, the actors — Fiasco co-director Noah Brody and Jessie Austrian — are in fact a married couple.)
If the musical is more of an exercise in pure enchantment than previous productions, the performers are no less talented. Everybody’s in fine voice, and several of the quick-change artists stand out, such as Patrick Mulryan as the sophisticated steward and the dopey Jack. I preferred the more campy “Agony” number in the movie to the less over-the-top rendition here (although Fiasco was right to keep — and Hollywood wrong to cut — the clever revisionist encore of “Agony.”) But give me Jennifer Mudge over Meryl Streep as the witch. Yes, you heard that right. Mudge doesn’t look like your stereotypical witch– she’s more like a matronly lady wearing an ugly quilt and a second-hand Mardi Gras mask — but her transformation is all the more startling. And her rendition of “Last Midnight” is not just show-stopping; it’s somehow both chilling and moving.
Here are questions I’ve pondered. Will the Baker and his Wife become as well-known a fairy tale as the ones it was created to accompany? Will “Into The Woods” last longer, or become more popular, than the folk tales it incorporates? In 100 years, will the best-known versions of Jack and the Beanstalk or Rapunzel — certainly not Cinderella! — be the ones in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapines’ initially subversive musical?
Into the Woods
At the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Sets by Derek McLane, costumes by Whitney Locher, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound by Darron L
West, choreography by Lisa Shriver, music direction by Matt Castle, orchestrations by Frank Galgano
Cast: Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Matt Castle, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen,
Liz Hayes, Claire Karpen, Jennifer Mudge, Patrick Mulryan, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
Into the Woods is scheduled to run through March 22, 2015
Update: Into the Woods extends through April 12, 2015