'Into the Woods': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
The cast of Fiasco Theater's 'Into the Woods'
One for the show's insatiable fans, but perhaps not for first-timers

A handcrafted staging of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine wish-fulfillment musical that's the polar opposite of Disney's lavish screen version.

Admirers of Into the Woods rarely have to wait long between productions of the popular 1987 revisionist fairy-tale musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. But aficionados are unlikely to find two more radically juxtaposed approaches to the material than Rob Marshall's picturesque and lushly orchestrated all-star Disney film, which opened in December, and this pared-down reimagining by the inventive Fiasco Theater troupe, being presented off-Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company.

With a single upright piano serving as the principal accompaniment, and a vast stash of bric-a-brac props that appear to have been looted from thrift stores, the production scores higher on story-theater ingenuity than emotionality, sacrificing some of its heart to smartypants cleverness. Its ten castmembers seem a tad too pleased with themselves as they knock holes in the fourth wall. But they also wrestle with the musical's complex tangle of themes with clarity and humor, exploring the twisty, sometimes frightening path that takes us from wishing and wondering to growing and knowing.

Derek McClane's set design is a thing of beauty, festooned with 15 mismatched chandeliers that add to the suggestion of a patchwork production assembled out of found objects. Framed by a maze of piano parts with a rear-wall web of strings, which lighting designer Christopher Akerlind paints in green to evoke the sylvan setting, the stage is a literal encapsulation of the role of music in storytelling. But given the highly variable skill of the cast's musicianship and vocal ability, this production makes no claims to be the most perfectly played or sung Into the Woods you'll ever see.

Read more 'Into the Woods': Film Review

Musical director Matt Castle does yeoman's work at the piano, and the actors pitch in on cello, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, guitar, banjo, xylophone, autoharp, toy piano and cowbell, often functioning like foley artists on a radio play. The layers of meaning and wit in Sondheim's songs come through loud and clear. But while the illusion of a ramshackle company getting together to spontaneously enact a story has its appeal, it's a bit like a school musical staged by wannabe Wes Andersons, with a surfeit of whimsy at the expense of depth.

The show's co-directors, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, both appear in the multitasking cast. Brody plays the Wolf, one of Cinderella's Stepsisters and also her Prince in a particularly dexterous feat of mid-scene role-juggling. Steinfeld takes the central part of the Baker, whose quest to reverse the Witch's curse, preventing him and his wife from having children, drives the plot. He does a lovely job on the plaintive "No More," sung with the Baker's morally slippery father (Paul L. Coffey), which was perhaps the most notable musical casualty of Marshall's film.

See more A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Costumes, Hair and Makeup of 'Into the Woods'

However, while this is very much a unified ensemble effort, the women are the standouts. Looking at first like some sort of boho-folksy hybrid of Little Edie Beale and the Phantom of the Opera, Jennifer Mudge's Witch emerges post-makeover in a slinky LBD, lace-up boots and a goth-glam velvet coat. Mudge is suitably wily, and her delivery of the Witch's entrance rap in the title song is perfection. Also impressive is Emily Young, doubling as Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. Both her vocals and her comic timing are superb, and her performance darkens appropriately, in keeping with the accelerated maturity of her characters. The former starts out cheeky and precocious, the latter cloistered from the world's harsh realities, but both have their eyes opened.

There's fine work also from Jessie Austrian as the shrewd but corruptible Baker's Wife, and Claire Karpen as Cinderella, whose romantic notion of life in a palace with a handsome prince isn't quite what she imagined. The best of the male cast is Patrick Mulryan as the dreamer Jack; his awestruck rendition of "Giants in the Sky" makes that gorgeous song a vivid window into another fairy-tale realm.

Read more Rob Marshall on Movie Musicals and His Journey 'Into the Woods'

Lapine and Sondheim set out to explore the murky Freudian swamp between "Once upon a time" and "(Not so) happily ever after," and the musical almost invariably has suffered from second-act longueurs as questions of consequence, blame and guilt come into play. That's very much the case here. While the production amuses and captivates on a scene-by-scene basis, something is lacking overall, making this to some degree an exercise in artful form over content.

There are droll displays of resourceful stage magic, notably the use of shadow play in Little Red Riding Hood's fateful encounter with the Wolf at Granny's house, or the slaying of the widowed Giantess, which remains poignantly unsettling. The production celebrates a scrappy tradition of low-tech theatrical make-believe, inviting comparison with the recent Peter and the Starcatcher. And the ways in which the Fiasco members employ objects as random as an antique dressmaker's dummy, a curtain rod, a taxidermy hunting trophy, a wooden ladder, a feather duster and a bathroom rug are a constant source of surprise even if they're not always new. Often the most rudimentary representations are the most enchanting, such as folded sheets of paper accompanied by whistles standing in for twittering birds.

But ultimately, all the artsy-craftiness starts to feel a wee bit precious, and the characters' painful enlightenment less affecting. Or perhaps I'm just Woods-ed out so soon after the movie.

Cast: Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Liz Hayes, Claire Karpen, Jennifer Mudge, Patrick Mulryan, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young

Directors: Noah Brody, Ben Steinfeld

Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Book: James Lapine

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: Whitney Locher

Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind

Sound designer: Darron L. West

Orchestrations: Frank Galgano, Matt Castle

Choreographer: Lisa Shriver

Music director: Matt Castle

Orchestrations: Don Sebesky, Larry Blank, Jason Robert Brown, Charlie Rosen

Production: Fiasco Theater

Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with McCarter Theatre Center