Fiasco Theater Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s musical Into The Woods is a creative staging of a musical theatre classic. The musical weaves several fairy tales together. We see Jack and The Beanstalk, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella collide with a regular Baker and his wife. The Baker and his wife are told by the witch that she has placed a curse on his family tree, which makes it impossible for him to father a child. The classical fairy tales play out, while the Baker and his wife pursue an object from each of them to give to the witch. She has promised to lift the curse if she receives the objects in three midnights time. In the first act the stories reach their happy endings, including the Baker and his wife being blessed with a child. The second act shows us the aftermath of the so-called happy endings and delves deeper into the characters realities. The musical looks at what our perception of good is, as well as the lessons we learn from each other, all illustrated through Sondheim’s enchanting score.
With a tight-knit ensemble of just 10 members playing over 18 characters, credit must be given to them all for working so hard throughout. Outstanding comedic genius comes in the form of Andy Grotelueschen who plays the cow Milky White, an Ugly Stepsister and Rapunzel’s Prince. A lot of the time he’s only saying “moo” and he still cracks the entire audience up. Paired with Noah Brody (Cinderella’s Prince, Ugly Stepsister, The Wolf) frequently, the two steal the show with the song, ‘Agony’ and similarly when they playfully create the stepsisters. They bounce off each other from moment to moment with direct and understated nuances. Patrick Mulryn is effervescent as Jack, particularly during ‘Giants In The Sky.’ He is youthful and full of soul. Ben Steinfield as the Baker gives a stirring rendition of ‘No More’. Vanessa Reseland is a tower of strength as The Witch, during the prologue her speech becomes a sinister rap, she spits out the intricate lyrics venomously.
The design of the stage (Derek McLane) is flawless, piano keys dress the proscenium arch, harps create sides of the stage and the back drop is a plethora of ropes. Broken down objects and props create a shabby homegrown feel, with instruments and old furniture dotted around which are used as a playground to create settings. The barren landscape means they have thought of interesting ways to utilise everything, and although props and costume are flying around the space, I doubt anything is left to chance. Even the piano provides a platform for the entire cast to hug onto at points, sharing the piano stool with Musical Director Evan Rees and turning to illustrate their transition into the woods. All of the design ties in well, the costume design (Whitney Locher) of early nineteenth century clothing is a base which allows overcoats and shawls to create quick changes between characters. It proves entertaining when the characters are all supposed to be in the scene, for example the ugly stepsisters who come disguised as a pair of curtains and floral hats, switch to cow and prince with the whip of material. Lighting (by Christopher Akerlind) provides strength in different parts of the action, including the use of shadows to create the mystical creatures. It also provides focus during emotional moments when the cast come out from the stage.
My only dispute would be that sometimes there is a lack of fullness in the orchestration. Solidly playing the piano throughout, Rees holds the fort in numbers which require the entire cast to be singing and moving. In the more important numbers, more cast members took up instruments which added some depth to the sound.
I recently attended a masterclass where I watched Nick Payne talk about how much he loves the rehearsal period. He loves that the actors are openly playing and pretending. He finds it more interesting when they pretend to drink a coffee than when he sits down and watches the final show wherein they are drinking a real cup. I think there is a trend in theatre at the moment which strips down a lot of the production values. We have learnt that a piece can be high quality, based solely on the material and the actors. What makes theatre interesting is that we as an audience openly accept that the performers are playing. It is something I have yet to see used in musical theatre until this production, and it was interesting because it didn’t take away any of the drama from Sondheim’s score. In the second act I was completely immersed, and felt all of the morals shone through brighter because of the choices made. After the show I reflected on the lessons we teach children and how fairy tales ideals can lead to sticky situations. Children will listen, they believe everything we tell them and will learn lessons as they grow up from other people retelling their experiences.
The company have this show balanced on the tip of their fingers, it is a beautiful labour of love from them and we appreciate that as an audience. With just the right amount of silliness, cleverness and rawness; the show will have you hooked both slowly and all at once.
Into The Woods is playing Menier Chocolate Factory until 17 of September. For more information and tickets, see the Menier Chocolate Factory website.