Just to get it straight: This is not the movie version of “Into the Woods” with Meryl Streep. This is the cutesy Fiasco Theater version that originated at the McCarter Theater in 2013. Stripped down to its underpants by co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the Sondheim/Lapine musical is performed in minimalist story-theater fashion by ten actors who play multiple roles and assemble their own sets and costumes from found-object props. The show’s playful spirit is best caught by music director Matt Castle, pounding out the score on an upright piano that might have come out of a Storyville bordello.
Although the performances are uneven and the effects aren’t as clever as the company would like to think they are, there’s still a lot to like in this traveling-circus version of the 1987 landmark musical. The music, for a start, sounds amazingly rich and melodic for being played on an upright piano. And the smart lyrics ring out clear as a bell in the intimate theater auditorium. Not all the singing voices are created equal, but they make a dynamite chorus on big numbers like “No One Is Alone” and the title song.
The stage is busy-busy-busy in every way, but not always in the service of the show. The centerpiece of Derek McLane’s set, for example, is a stunning piece of soft sculpture — a back curtain of thick ropes, lighted (by Christopher Akerlind) in vivid shades of green to suggest the mysterious woods. But the wooden piano guts affixed to the side walls are visually overwhelming while serving no obvious conceptual purpose.
In the same hit-or-miss fashion, Little Red Ridinghood’s red cloak (the work of costumer Whitney Locher) is a flame of inspiration. But the double curtains-on-a-rod worn by the male thesps playing Cinderella’s two ugly sisters are a cliché.
The fairy tale characters are clearly fun to play, and the company successfully communicates that joy to the audience. True of voice and quite saucy, Emily Young makes a feisty Little Red Ridinghood, a little bit frightened and a little bit thrilled by her encounter with the big, bad, sexy wolf. “I know things now / Many valuable things / That I hadn’t known before,” she confides, in one of Sondheim’s subtly subversive lyrics. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot! / … And a little bit not.”
Jennifer Mudge sings beautifully and cackles with comic menace as the Witch. In his wisdom, Sondheim gave the old hag some of the loveliest songs in the show, “Our Little World” and “Stay With Me” among them, and Mudge does them proper justice, emotionally as well as musically.
The Baker (Ben Steinfeld) and his Wife (Jessie Austrian) earn our sympathies (in “It Takes Two”) for this unhappy couple, so desperate to have a child. And as Cinderella, Claire Karpen has her big moment in “On the Steps of the Palace.” But the only standout male singer in this company is the tenor, Patrick Mulryan, boyishly appealing as Jack, the lazy youth who climbs up the beanstalk into the unknown and is thrilled to discover “Big tall terrible awesome scary wonderful Giants in the Sky.”
As faithful as it is to the essence of the show, the Fiasco company has made no effort to streamline or re-vitalize the messy second act, the sober “grownup act” in which all the fairy tale characters who went into the woods to find their hearts’ desires realize that their hearts’ desires haven’t made them happy after all. The act drags on, the characters keep repeating themselves, and the charm leaks right out of the show. Guess there’s no funny costume or cute prop in their bag of tricks to deal with the big stuff.