Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, McCarter Theatre Center, and Fiasco Theater
Off Broadway, Musical Revival
Extended through 4.12.15
Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street
by Molly Marinik on 1.29.15
Ben Steinfeld, Jennifer Mudge, and Jessie Austrian in Into the Woods. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: This deconstructed revival of the classic Sondheim musical allows the material to shine brighter than ever before.
The electric feeling of watching musical theatre is a contagious euphoria known well by those who appreciate the genre. Some musicals generate joy because the lyrics, music, story, and characters blend so seamlessly that no matter how familiar you are with the show, you experience it anew upon every visit. I'd venture to say that Into the Woods will stand the test of time as one of those forever beloved American musicals, which means that the magic lies within the original content as much as any design tricks or fancy production elements superimposed on top. Fiasco Theater pays homage to the source in a brilliant revival, and the pared down production lets the show, and everything about it, soar.
Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, premiered in 1987 and has seen many revivals since, including a 2002 production on Broadway starring Vanessa Williams and a 2012 production as part of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park program. And you likely heard about the recently released movie version that no one seemed to particularly enjoy.
The show follows several of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale characters -- Cinderella, Rapunzel, their respective princes, Little Red Riding Hood, her wolf, Jack of beanstalk fame -- as their worlds collide. The baker (Ben Steinfeld) and the baker's wife (Jessie Austrian) want to have a baby, but a curse put upon their house long ago by a bitter neighbor, coincidentally a witch (Jennifer Mudge), prevents their dreams of a growing family. The witch agrees to reverse the curse if the couple brings her a few specific items, which require some crafty bartering or basically stealing. When the baker trades Jack (Patrick Mulryan) some beans (surprise, they're magic!) in exchange for his cow (necessary for the witch's request), a beanstalk grows. Then Jack gets greedy, the giant on the other end falls to his death, and the giant's wife is pissed. Revenge ensues and the once happy world is turned on its head.
Fiasco's Into the Woods played off Broadway before a run at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey last year. That the show is back in New York City, and still generating significant attention, is a testament to its creative achievement. The ensemble-based company has devised a revival that relies heavily on its cast of 10. They play all of the roles, facilitate scene changes, operate puppets, and play over a dozen instruments accompanying their savvy music director Matt Castle, who spends the show at a piano center stage with cast members on all sides. What results is a smaller production with far more creative capacity. By peeling back the theatrical layers the content at the core is amplified.
The lack of ego in this production is nearly mind boggling, especially when you consider that every role in the show invites a comedic tongue-in-cheek portrayal ready for an audience's delight. This is not to say that Fiasco's production is without camp or humor; it's highly entertaining and wonderful performances abound. But it's crystal clear that each actor is supporting the ensemble, and every choice made is for the good of the show. And what this does is crystalize the production for the audience, ensuring that we are all participating in the same magical story.
At the start of the show the cast walks on stage, not yet in character and with the house lights still up, and as they get ready to begin some jump down to chat with the audience. This gesture sets up the shared experience, and it illuminates the power of live theatre. You can read more about Fiasco's mission here. And though the ticket price to Into the Woods is steep (something noticeably misaligned with Fiasco's objectives), the production is sure to ignite your own imaginative impulses.
(Into the Woods plays at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46 Street, through April 12, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 7:30PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 7:30PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $109 and are available at roundabouttheatre.org.)