Regional Reviews: San Diego
Into the Woods
The company is called Fiasco Theater, and this troupe from Providence, Rhode Island, has rapidly made a name for itself producing Shakespeare. It's performed acclaimed versions of Cymbeline, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, both in New York and elsewhere. Now, they have tackled a piece from the current bard of musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim. And, their production of Mr. Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is stopping in San Diego between an auspicious premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton and a New York appearance as part of the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2014-15 season.
Apply a penchant for Shakespeare to arguably Mr. Sondheim's most popular musical and what do you get? A deep understanding of and appreciation for the text, a stripped-down but still highly theatrical production, and a level of emotional honesty in the performances that serves to connect audiences to both the characters and the story.
An understanding and appreciation of the text reveals itself through a feeling that the cast is having a conversation with itself. But this conversation is structured to provide a clarity in not only how the group collectively tells the story but who is doing the telling at any given moment. Choices regarding who of the ten-member company (eleven, if you count pianist and music director Matt Castleand you should count him) plays which roles creates resonances between characters. For example, Noah Brody portrays one of Cinderella's scheming stepsisters, Red Ridinghood's wolf, and Cinderella's prince, in the process finding interesting connections among these roles. Likewise, Emily Young's Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel are two young women whose personalities are distinct but who nevertheless share some similarand commonanxieties.
In short, productions of Into the Woods can get bogged down in details of the various fairy tales and relationships that become mashed up while the characters are "in the woods." Not here.
Shakespeare does not typically require much more than the text to be effectively produced, but a level of theatricality is necessary nonetheless. Fiasco's Into the Woods benefits from a scenic design by Derek McLane that makes a forest out of parts of a piano. Whitney Locher's costume design gives each performer a simple but effective personal look that can be easily modified with the addition of a coat, cape, or even in one case, some shoes. Tim Cryan's lighting design and Darron I. West's sound design want to fade into the production's look and feel. Mostly they achieve that goal, though Mr. West's sound comes across as so unamplified that clarity of speech and singing was sometimes lost at the day-after-opening performance I saw.
Theatricality also emerges from the company's collective effort. Mr. Castle's moveable on-stage piano is quickly established as the touchstone around which scenes can be built with a few props and set pieces. Performers not in a scene sometimes retreat to the sidelines but often supplement the piano accompaniment on other instruments (I spotted a guitar, a banjo, a cello, a bassoon, and various percussion instruments). Simple effects create magically theatrical moments.
Emotional honesty in the performances is made known through small gestures that define character, generousness in sharing the spotlight, and telling interactions that clearly come from a place of love. Choosing to play Milky White, the cow, as human instead of inanimate is crucial to the development of this honesty. Despite having no lines to speak, Milky White's (Andy Grotelueschen) love affair with his rather dim owner, Jack (Patrick Mulryan), is nevertheless precious to behold.
Fiasco Theater's Into the Woods is not the radical "reimagining" one might fear. Rather, it is intelligent, theatrical, emotionally honest, and endlessly engaging.
The Old Globe presents the McCarter Theatre Center and Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Mr. Lapine originally directed on Broadway, and his work has been reimagined by Fiasco Theater. Performances through August 10, 2014, at the Old Globe Theatre, located in San Diego's Balboa Park at 1363 Old Globe Way. Ticket prices start at $29, and tickets are available at the box office, by calling (619) 23-GLOBE
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, with Lisa Shriver (Choreographer), Derek McLane (Scenic Design), Whitney Locher (Costume Design), Tim Cryan (Lighting Design), Darron L West (Sound Design), and Matt Castle (Music Director, Orchestrations).
The cast features Fiasco Theater Company members Jessie Austrian (Baker's Wife), Mr. Brody (Lucinda, Wolf, Cinderella's Prince), Mr. Castle (Pianist), Alison Cimmet (Witch), Paul L. Coffey (Mysterious Man), Andy Grotelueschen (Milky White, Florinda, Rapunzel's Prince), Liz Hayes (Cinderella's Stepmother, Jack's Mother), Claire Karpen (Cinderella, Granny), Patrick Mulryan (Jack, Steward), Mr. Steinfeld (Baker), and Emily Young (Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel).