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A CurtainUp Review
Into The Woods
By Elyse Sommer
Currently the big buzz about Mr. Sondheim and book writer James Lapine's cornucopia of fairy tales has focused on the star studded, special effects rich Disney movie ( Our Review). But I'm herewith joining in with all those hopeful fairy tale characters' "I Wish, I Wish" opening number. My wish is that my readers don't miss the more modest but live and lively production now at the Laura Pels Theater.
Under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, the adventurous Fiasco Theater Ensemble that was established by a group of Brown University's graduate theater program, invites us for a quite different visit into the woods to experience Sondheim and Lapine's Cinderella, Rapunzel and their Princes, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. without any of the accouterments of the 2002 Broadway and 2012 Shakespeare In the Park mountings or the movie. Instead of a large, starry cast, a big orchestra or spectacular scenery what you get from Fiasco is the special charisma and charm of an exuberant and extremely talented young troupe.
Applying the same streamlined approach that have won the Fiasco team numerous productions for their approach to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Cymbeline , their Into the Woods features just ten actors — eleven if you count musical director/pianist Matt Castle whose piano is the main scenic prop and instrument. The relaxed enthusiasm of all is contagiously engaging.
While not trained as singers as is typical for most past production, this talented troupe handles the score with flair and enough clarity to insure that the audience hears every word of the marvelously witty lyrics. This all too rare ability for an audience to fully appreciate the musical wordplay is abetted by having the score primarily and superbly played on the piano, with occasional support from a few instruments scattered arond the sides and rear of the stage (notably a cello and guitar, also a horn and xylophone) and played by some of the actors. Though I liked John Doyle's artists-as-musicians productions of Company Company and Sweeney Todd Sweeney Todd, this device is more unobtrusive here and actually more subtle.
The deliberately small, homespun feel of the show is lucky to have set designer Derek McLane, who's as at home on as off Broadway, on board. McLane has beautifully caught the Fiasco spirit and yet added a bit of glitz with the woods imaginatively evoked by color shifting piano strings at the back of the stage, piano parts around the sides, and 10 chandeliers way up high shining their light on what's doing below.
The props and Whitney Lochner's costumes which include a great yo-yo quilt cape for the Witch, support the "let's put on a show" spirit. Watching what this crafty crafts team devises from essentially found around the house objects far from feeling like necessary belt tightening adds to the fun. Some of the more irresistible bits of resourcefulness include the princes riding in on toy stick horses. . . a dressmaker as Jack's tree, Rapunzel's aerie at the top of a ladder and her golden tresses made of wool with a sheet draped around that ladder for Little Red Riding Hood's confrontation with the wolf in shadow play.
In this small cast even directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld are very much front and center. Most of the actors tackle two or more characters. Steinfeld is terrific as the Baker, as is Jessie Austrian as his wife. Brody has fun as Cinderella's sister Lucinda, as well as the Wolf and Cinderella's "raised to be charming not sincere" Prince. Andy Grotelueschen is a riot as Milk White, the Cow as well o as Rapunzel's Prince. Jennifer Mudge may not out-sing previously catch Witches but she is bewitchingly endearing. And wait until you see her transformation!
I could go on with my praises, but I guess you get the idea: I was as thoroughly enchanted with everything and everyone, as our New Jersey critic was when he saw the or iginal at the McCarter Theater.
Unlike so many contemporary composers who make fans of melodic scores yearn for at least one hummable tune, Into the Woods is enriched by a consistently melodic leitmotif and decidedly hummable songs. The melodies begin with the Prologue (here sung by the whole company) and move along to the Princes' amusing duet, "Agony" and standouts like "No More" and No One Is Alone."
I was pleased to see many teenagers at the press preview I attended. For them this is a great introduction to a musical theater masterwork, artfully presented by people not much older than they are; also to see it in a medium-sized theater with raked seating for perfect sightlines.