Keeping with the latest trend of reimagining popular musicals, Fiasco Theater’s “Into the Woods” took a bold leap by deconstructing James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s beloved masterpiece to its bare bones by focusing on the story rather than frills in this highly anticipated revival playing at The Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown, Los Angeles. While the plot, characters and musical numbers remain the same, gone are the colorful costumes and pop-up book sets familiar with the original Broadway production and the countless retellings since then.
Co-directors, Noah Brady and Ben Steinfeld followed another popular movement by having the troupe take the stage with house lights on, seen most recently in Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” and Tennessee William’s revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” They also incorporated a form of storytelling, reminiscent to improvisational theatre by transforming inanimate objects like scraps of paper into birds, a dressmaker’s form into Cinderella’s mother and ladders into sweeping towers – a resourceful way to keep us engaged by using our imaginations.
Another change was the absence of the Narrator, instead having each actor chronicle his or her own journey throughout the performance. Fiasco Theater enlisted a group of multi-faceted artists to not only act, sing and dance [embodying multiple characters] but to play instruments [exceptionally well, I might add; replacing a full orchestra] and even delving into sound effects.
Musical director/pianist, Evan Reese is joined on stage by a collaborative group of performers, which include: Evan Harrington [Baker], Eleasha Gamble [Baker’s Wife], Anthony Chatmon II [Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince], Fred Rose [Mysterious Man/Baker’s Father], Bonne Kramer [Cinderella’s Mom/Stepmother/Jack’s Mother], Patrick Mulryan [Jack/Steward] and Lisa Helmi Johanson [Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel].
Though an ensemble piece, Darick Pead [Florinda/Milky White/Rapunzel’s Prince] was by far the standout performer with his over the top, comedic wit. Having previously seen him in Disney’s “Beauty and The Beast,” there was no doubt he could act, however, watching him in “Woods,” proved how well-versed he truly is. His portrayal as Jack’s pet cow [Yes, a cow] was nothing short of comedy gold!
Also noteworthy were the two understudies that took center stage at Tuesday nights performance. They were Mary Kate Moore [The Witch] and Alana Saunders [Cinderella]. Moore’s vocals in the cautionary tale “Children Will Listen” was sublime and Saunders wistful performance as the benevolent princess was truly endearing.
Perhaps, the most bewildering element of this reworking was the set design by Derek McLane. There were a few adornments like chandeliers, piano keys and harps around the set that were puzzling at first glance. It appeared as if I had stepped into a hipster coffee shop doubling as a vintage thrift store. The strategically placed ropes, which served as the backdrop, however, was my favorite component as once illuminated became clear we were deep in the woods of this dismantled fairytale.
Besides the backdrop, Christopher Ackerlind’s lighting design played an instrumental part throughout, recreating several brilliant moments in the show. Most ingenious was the play on shadows and light [at grandmother’s house and slaying the giant].
Fiasco Theater’s “Into the Woods” is artistic interpretation at its best. Dont let this trend of theatrical minimalism fool you. Where it lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in substance. By the end, you’ll surely want to venture into the woods and get lost over and over again!
“Into the Woods” is playing now through May 14, 2017. Tickets are available by calling 213-972-4400 or online at http://www.centertheatregroup.org or by visiting the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Ticket prices start at $25. The Ahmanson Theatre is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.
Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus