Once upon a time, but not that long ago, Fiasco, an adventurous and creative young troupe with members from a Brown University theater program, impressed the New York critics and audiences with their minimalist six-actor version of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” The troupe is now in Princeton with a 10-actor version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods.” They are here to prove, and they do, that this ever-enchanting musical is open and receptive to many different approaches and styles.
The one thing that I insist upon is being able hear clearly and without distortion every witty word in this brilliant score. For the excellence of this aspect of the current production, I commend sound designer Darron L. West.
Leaving behind the more giant-like footsteps often left by previous productions, this version takes us imaginatively into the woods made of shimmering piano strings that crisscross across the width and height of the stage of the Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center. If that isn’t stunning enough, set designer Derek McLane has placed on high ten very differently shaped chandeliers each casting its own sparkle on the action as co-existing celestial bodies. That’s a spectacular frame in which the 10 performers are already seen scurrying about on an aged wood floor. Their muted but also whimsically consigned garments may look as if they have been rescued from an attic trunk, but the performers are exuberant, attractive, and, best of all, disarmingly talented.
In this setting that is probably meant to be an attic there are boxes, crates, ladders strewn about, also an old-fashioned dress-making form that, as you can imagine, will serve as a tree. A piano, however, is the main set piece.
On the two side walls are complementary installations that continue the piano motif. There are a few musical instruments propped in various locations, each ready to be used by a performer who may or may not also be in the midst of becoming another character — the Wolf becomes the Prince, Rapunzel becomes Red Riding Hood, the Cow becomes the Prince’s brother.
Every production of “Into the Woods” has the potential for one or two performers to step forward and make their character a signature opportunity. This staging allows virtually every member to stand out and shine, make us laugh, or simply make us just think, wow!
For hearty laughs, there is Andy Grotelueschen, who gets milked in a most usual way as Milk White, the Cow. He is also Rapunzel’s slightly goofy Prince as well as Florinda, the giddiest of Cinderella’s sisters, who, sidles up against Noah Brody (who plays the other silly sister, Lucinda), so they may flit their way around the stage behind a twin set of window curtains that remain on the rod.
Brody is fun to watch as the sly Wolf, but also as Cinderella’s unfaithful husband (“I’ve been raised to be charming, not sincere.”) When the two princes gallop on stage and stop to sing their duet (about being in love with someone else), “Agony,” it will surprise you to see who gets to hold on to their stallions.
Terrific performances are given by Jessie Austin as the Baker’s bossy, ill-fated Wife; and Liz Hayes, as Cinderella’s loopy stepmother and Jack’s overprotective mother. As Cinderella, the delightful Claire Karpen loses her slippers as often as she loses her balance. Patrick Mulryan never loses Jack’s endearingly “vague disposition,” and Jennifer Mudge’s Witch will astonish you when she makes her incredible transformation from yuck to wow. Emily Young is wonderful as the golden hair (made of yellow yarn perfect for unraveling) and also as a particularly scrappy Little Red Riding Hood. Even the excellent Matt Castle, at the piano, gets a line, or rather a “moo.”
What seems to me more apparent every time I see another production is how masterfully Sondheim and Lapine were able to embrace, through contemporary sensibilities and artistic savvy, both the universality and the timelessness of these legendary fables. The Fiasco troupe’s concept certainly casts its own unique spell on the Grimmsian stories. I don’t want to be a spoiler by writing about all the tricks that are played on some of the most famous storybook characters before and beyond “happily ever after.”
What a pleasure it is to be in the company of a troupe that, under the joint direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, playfully pays their respects to Sondheim and his collaborator ,Lapine, at the same time bringing a revitalizing freshness to the music, lyrics, and book. Many of the songs, in particular “No One is Alone,” as beautifully sung by Karpen and the ensemble, linger in the head long after you have left the theater. But all the music is addressed without pretense by performers who we see earnestly at play, discovering and using what they find, believing and becoming who and what they can be.
One is impressed quickly by how the Fiasco troupe make us see each of the character’s faults, foibles, and idiosyncrasies. The moral and ethical imprint on this musical is as relevant today as it was when this amazing musical first took us into the woods.
Within the musical’s quixotically episodic context, that imprint is not simply meant to be a silly and comical distortion by Sondheim and Lapine of the instructive, but mysteriously veiled parables they have taken mainly from the brothers Grimm. As the musical begins to cast its magical spell, we learn along with these edge-of-the-forest inhabitants, many of whom are not only neighbors but relatives, that getting one’s wishes in life is not necessarily deliverance from self-centeredness and immaturity. Even the well-intentioned Witch learns that you can’t keep your chaste and beautiful daughter locked up in a tower without serious psychological consequences. And what a shame that our spirited Cinderella (Karpen), who talks to the birds, isn’t better appreciated by her prince?
The concept of having actors play musical instruments isn’t exactly new, as it has been used for recent productions of “Company” and “Sweeney Todd.” Considering the Public Theater’s production of “Into the Woods” last summer in Central Park didn’t move to Broadway as some expected, there may be hope that this delightfully scaled-down version will prove the one parable that can be attributed directly to Sondheim and Lapine that “wishes are children and wishes come true.”
Into the Woods, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, June 9. $20 to $85. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.