A feather duster. A ladder. A curtain rod. Amazing how the most humdrum of household items can be transformed into instruments of enchantment — exactly the way the droll magicians of Fiasco Theater make this happen in their delightfully unfussy take on the fractured fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods.”
Into the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater the little New York-based company brings these ordinary elements and presto! — they’re objects that help transport us into the wounded world of this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, in which characters puzzle out their places in the land of make-believe as if they were graduate students in philosophy.
The feather duster is a goose that lays golden eggs; the ladder, the tower from which Rapunzel lets down her hair; the curtain rod, a support for the dresses worn by Cinderella’s hardhearted Stepsisters. Fiasco, last represented in these parts by the witty world premiere of its version of Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Folger Theatre, wants to activate audiences’ imaginative instincts in much the way Sondheim and Lapine compel Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of beanstalk fame to wander outside the boundaries of their stories to reflect on the riddles of modern life.
“What if he knew/Who you were when you know/That you’re not what he thinks/That he wants?” Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer) sings about the Prince (Anthony Chatmon II) from whom she flees. “Though scary is exciting/Nice is different than good,” concludes Little Red Riding Hood (Lisa Helmi Johanson) after being rescued from the stomach of the Wolf (Chatmon again). “You think of all of the things you’ve seen/And you wish that you could live in between,” warbles Jack (Philippe Arroyo) after escaping the Giants’ lair. “And you’re back again/Only different, than before.”
With a mere 11 actors, all of them doubling as musicians and one of them, Evan Rees, playing a piano that remains for much of the evening at center stage, the company offers as poignant a treatment of the 1987 musical as you’ll ever come across. It turns out that the overburdened exposition of “Into the Woods” — the weaving together of four major plots and several subplots over the course of two hours and 45 minutes — gets some relief when the visual distractions are kept to a minimum. And in cases in which a production can place its focus squarely on the musical’s emotionality, rather than on its penchant for sardonic commentary, the show becomes child’s play in the optimal sense. How much more enjoyable is Fiasco’s approach than was the rather pedestrian path followed by the lumbering, star-filled vehicle that was the 2014 movie adaptation.
Not that every moment of “Into the Woods” is kid-friendly. The violent episodes aside — what happens to the Wolf, the Stepsisters and the lady Giant isn’t very nice — the fairy-tale characters who wander into the woods, in search of adventure or loved ones or the granting of a fondest wish, end up confronting adult, existential crises. (In the Eisenhower, I watched as a few of the littlest theatergoers squirmed.) Still, the resourceful conjuring by directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld infuses so much heart, and richness of imagination, into the piece that this “Into the Woods” offers pleasure at virtually every reading level.
The production’s aesthetic is a match for a musical that says, essentially, that our world doesn’t yield up easy answers for every question; the riddles in which some characters speak, such as the furtive, aptly named Mysterious Man (Fred Rose), seem confoundingly opaque. But so, sometimes, is life. Set designer Derek McLane picks up this idea in the messy-beautiful physical domain he devises. It’s a world that in the mind’s eye might, in fact, be going on inside that piano: The woods are framed by giant strands of piano wire, verdantly illuminated by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. High above the stage, a cluster of chandeliers suggests the elegance of the Prince’s palace, while the dull sticks of furniture below betoken the humbler dwelling of the dolefully childless Baker (Evan Harrington) and his wife (Eleasha Gamble).
When this production started three years ago at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., and went on to runs in New York and London, the cast was made up largely of Fiasco’s own roster of regular players. For this touring version, the show has been recast, an advantage being that these actors have stronger voices for a musical with a palette of Sondheim songs funny (“Agony”), touching (“No More”), soaring (“Giants in the Sky”) and elegiac (“No One Is Alone”) that come across with exuberance (and acoustic clarity) in the Eisenhower.
You’ll enjoy every one of these performers. Harrington’s Baker, Veldheer’s Cinderella, Gamble’s Baker’s Wife and Chatmon’s Prince and Wolf convey all of the required qualities of affability, charisma, warmth, charm and menace, while Vanessa Reseland’s Witch and Johanson’s Little Red Riding Hood inject the evening with a helpful zest. Arroyo and Bonnie Kramer, as an impressionable Jack and his beleaguered mother, offer up an endearing portrait of a folkloric child and parent at loggerheads. And an extra ring of a cowbell to Darick Pead, who executes a splendid act of anthropomorphism in herding a character by the name of Milky White into the spotlight.
“Children will listen,” or so Sondheim reminds us, in one of the melodic admonitions in a musical filled with them. Fiasco’s sophisticated and accessible style ensures that grown-ups do so, too — even if there’s no guarantee of happily ever after.
Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine. Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Choreography, Lisa Shriver; music supervision, Matt Castle; set, Derek McLane; costumes, Whitney Locher; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Darron L. West and Charles Coes; orchestrations, Frank Galgano and Castle. About 2 hours and 50 minutes. Tickets: $69-$139. Through Jan. 8 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.