NEW YORK – This past Christmas, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway musical “Into the Woods” became a big-time movie hit with a celestial cast featuring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman and a roster of other stars. A month later, a boutique-like rendition of the original stage musical “Into the Woods” turned up Off-Broadway by The Fiasco Theater at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street.
The Fiasco’s version of “Into the Woods” is scaled down to 10 actors and a pianist, the excellent Matt Castle. The setting by Derek McLane is minimal and stylish: a large mock-up of an open piano with its strings serving as a backdrop. The costumes by Whitney Locher are appropriately a quaint, ragtag affair. The creative lighting is by Christopher Akerlind.
There are no trees in sight in this “Into the Woods.” Yet the Fiasco’s talent seems to be everywhere. The first act is a delight, but I have always thought the later somber scenes in the musical’s second half are a bit trying.
But the troupe gets lots of winsome moments out of the show, and it has one of Sondheim’s most mesmerizingly brilliant scores. In many ways, this version, even with its dark moments, is probably closer to the creators’ intention than the original Broadway show or the movie.
“Into the Woods” is Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine’s take on The Brothers Grimm, a unique variation on remembered fairy tales of the past. The show’s first words, “Once upon a time … ” introduce us to a series of familiar folk trying to fulfill wishes: the Witch (Jennifer Mudge) who is trying to wipe out a curse, the Baker (Ben Steinfeld) and his wife (Jessie Austrian), who desperately want a child, Cinderella (Claire Karpen), who wants to attend the king’s’s ball and Jack (Patrick Mulryan), who is trying to get his milky-white cow to give milk. This is before Jack gets involved with the beans and the beanstalks. This motley group all trail off into the woods to get their wants fulfilled.
In the beginning, “Into the Woods” is a wonder, freshly funny and steadily engrossing, proceeding from one bright moment to the next in the delightful pattern Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have laid out. Most of the actors play multiple roles and give the piano player help by playing a variety of underscoring instruments. It is reminiscent of John Doyle’s productions of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” in which the actors sang and played all the orchestral instruments. Fiasco’s music is more simply executed, though.
By the end of Act One, all of the characters of “Into the Woods” have received their wishes. I wish that was the happy ending of the original show, too. Why do musicals have to have second acts?
Ironically, Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine ended their junior version of the show, designed for schools and amateur theaters around the world, without the second act. But we are an audience of grownups, so we have to deal with what happens with these characters in Act Two. Or, as Mr. Sondheim has said, we have to deal with the consequences of what these characters did to make their wishes come true. You just know things are going to become dour, though Cinderella closes the show with the optimistic last words, “I wish…”
“Into the Woods” is co-directed by Fiasco’s Noah Brody and Mr. Steinfeld, who are both in the show, and their staging is top-notch. Its troupe knows how to act all of the multiple roles, sing with clarity and resonance, and carry out Lisa Shriver’s fast-paced moves and choreography.
Although “Into the Woods” has its caliginous moments in the second act, I still call it to your attention as one of the best and most creative musicals in town.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.