Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods has been the subject of numerous stage productions since its debut in 1986 and even a critically acclaimed film. As a result, the discerning theatergoer with a taste for original work might review the Kennedy Center schedule and perhaps pick something more original. That would be a mistake: Fiasco Theater’s re-imagining of this classic fairy tale gone wrong is beautiful, funny, creative, and well worth your time.
Fiasco Theater’s concept of a bare-bones, make-do-with-what-you-have-on-hand improvisational low-budget traveling theater company performing on the grand stage of the Eisenhower Theatre works to near perfection. From the moment you walk into the theater, you can tell this won’t be a typical production: there are no musicians in the orchestra pit.
Instead, all the music is provided on stage, mostly in the form of a piano (played by Evan Rees) that gets wheeled around and occasionally used as a prop. The rest of the music is in no small part provided by the performers themselves, some of whom are playing instruments when they’re not otherwise engaged.
It’s a small troupe for such a big musical: excluding the dedicated pianist, there are ten performers playing seventeen roles and various instruments. That ration means that some performers are double- or even triple-cast. But it never feels rushed or disjointed: when appropriate, the switches are subtle and smooth, as when Lisa Helmi Johanson transforms from Rapunzel to Riding Hood while keeping the affect of each character discrete and recognizable. Sometimes, the inconvenience is intentionally amplified for comedic effect, as when Anthony Chatmon II publicly announced his switch from Cinderella’s Prince to Lucinda and took some extra time to get into his second character.
The staging is equally minimalist—for instance, an industrial folding ladder and a sheet serve as Rapunzel’s tower and grandmother’s house. But the backdrop is ornate and beautiful, consisting of what look like piano shells on stage right and a backdrop of ropes that could be either a forest of vines or larger-than-life piano strings, depending on which dream you happen to be in at that instant.
Want to go?
Into the Woods
closes January 8, 2017
Details and tickets
There are some weaker moments in the show, sometimes at inopportune occasions. Perhaps I’m simply too used to “Agony” being accompanied by strings and orchestral pathos, but the chamber music style didn’t seem to work for the number, and the taut dynamism that had previously pervaded the performance seemed to taper off. But all in all, the conflict created by staging such an ascetic production at the Eisenhower works wonderfully, and some of the performances are standouts. Darick Pead is delightful no matter which of three roles he’s playing, but his presence as Milky White is side-splitting.
Also noteworthy is local talent Eleasha Gamble in the role of the Baker’s Wife. From among the major characters, Gamble seemed the most able to summon a convincing array of emotions through her acting, and her vocals are solid and consistent. Gamble doesn’t just hold her own among this cast–she delivers one of the strongest performances in the show.
This may not be what you’re expecting from a production of Into the Woods, but I imagine you’ll come away from this resourceful, inventive re-imagining wishing there were others like it. There are only so many ways to do a traditional production of a classic, well-known musical. Fiasco Theater has set a paradigm for how to break the mold and tell an old story in a new way.
Into the Woods . Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim . Book by James Lapine . Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld . CAST: Baker’s Wife: Eleasha Gamble . Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Anthony Chatmon II . Mysterious Man: Fred Rose . Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince: Darick Pead . Cinderella’s Stepmother/Jack’s Mother: Bonne Kramer . Cinderella/Granny: Laurie Veldheer . Witch: Vanessa Reseland . Jack/Steward: Philippe Arroyo . Baker: Evan Harrington . Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel: Lisa Helmi JohansonScenic Designer: Derek McLane . Costume Designer: Whitney Locher . Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind . Sound Designer: Darron L. West, CharlesCoes . Additional Staging: Michael Perlman . Orchestration: Frank Galgano and Matt Castle . Music Director/Pianist: Evan Rees . Artistic Advisor: Mara Isaacs . Casting: Stewart/Whitley . Fiasco Company Manager: Jack Stephens Production Manager: Laura Dieli . Executive Producer: Orin Wolf . Music Supervisor: Matt Castle .
Choreography: Lisa Shriver . Production Stage Manager: Brian J. L’Ecuyer . Produced by Fiasco Theater . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Dante Atkins.