Review at the Economist
STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S fairy-tale musical melange “Into the Woods” features the only rhyme-less song in all his works: “I Guess This Is Goodbye”, a short ode to a cow, sung by Jack, of Beanstalk fame. It speaks to the relentless genius of Sondheim and the greatness of “Into the Woods” that this apparent throwaway was actually assembled using intentional non-rhymes, each with the necessary combination of dissimilar vowel and consonant sounds to suggest the dim-wittedness of the character.
There’s an equally devious ingenuity to Fiasco Theater Company’s take on “Into the Woods”. Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this is an unplugged, stripped-down version of the show. It unravels on a set that looks like a messy attic and generally encourages a charming impression of ramshackle looseness, though in fact everything is meticulously calibrated.
The basics are just as they are in the recently released Disney movie adaptation. “Into the Woods” interweaves the familiar stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, with a new story about a childless baker and his wife. The spirit of the two versions, though, is quite different: here, Cinderella’s tree is conjured out of a mannequin, Jack’s golden-egg-laying hen is a feather duster and Christmas-tree bauble, and Little Red is menaced by a mounted wolf’s head. Inviting the audience to join in make-believe is a natural, resonant fit for a show that draws on the stories told to children. Even more fundamentally, having the audience work with the actors in a common act of imagination feels right for a show that reassures that “No One is Alone”.
The music is performed mostly on a single piano, so Sondheim’s loquacious lyrics have never been clearer. Fans will be especially grateful for this in the case of “Your Fault”, a preposterous four-part musical quarrel that is the vocal equivalent of a game of hacky sack played at breakneck speed.
The piano arrangement also ensures that the songs resemble soliloquies. As a company that specialises in Shakespeare—another dramatist with a sense of the dark allure of the forest—Fiasco is well qualified to navigate the emotional nuance of certain numbers like “No More” and “Moments in the Woods”.
The slickness of the ensemble is particularly apparent in the farce-like first act: Mr Brody and Andy Grotelueschen make a well-oiled comedy duo as the pining princes, Emily Young is a suitably batty Little Red, and Mr Grotelueschen also milks the role of Jack’s cow to its full comic potential. But the production executes the sentiment as assuredly as the silliness. This was the first time that the Witch’s lament for the fallen Rapunzel had reminded this reviewer of the unnamed father in “Henry VI, Part III”, cradling the son he has unwittingly killed in battle.
This “Into the Woods” takes more liberties with Sondheim’s source material than most would ever dare. Even its opening moments will be disorienting, with the familiar chords taking a while to reveal themselves. But this cast and creative team understand that they do not just have a licence to experiment with a classic, but an obligation to do so—and the result turns out to be the most satisfying and enjoyable tribute to Sondheim’s creation you could wish for. As Little Red’s Wolf might declare: all the better to see and hear him with, my dear.
“Into the Woods” is at the Laura Pels Theatre until March 22nd 2015