The Menier Chocolate Factory certainly have an international reputation when it comes to presenting Sondheim revivals on a small yet intricate scale, and although this production of Sondheim and Lapine's 1987 fairy-tale mash-up comes from the New York based Fiasco Theatre, it's another home run for the venue and yet another ingenious and necessary revival.
London is certainly no stranger to Into the Woods yet Fiasco Theater's production, which comes direct from a successful run off-Broadway, champions the case for reinvention. Skillfully directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld who find a natural rhythm and pacing that is truly first-rate, this imaginative and resourceful production is so full of surprises that it challenges you not to fall in love with it.
Sondheim's work is often interpreted through the context of which it is revived. There were many who found the original production to be a commentary on the AIDS crisis, with the Giant representing a dark unknown evil (“Look around you, there are people dying everywhere”), and in the 2002 Broadway revival, the external terror spoke to a post-9/11 audience. It's hard to suggest a current ill that the show represents, but there was certainly a few knowing laughs as Cinderella told the Baker's Wife that it was “Okay” if she doesn't have a baby, which post Leadsom found a surprising new resonance.
The very fact that this can be (consciously and unconsciously) reinterpreted is testament to the universal themes of the show that blends the psychology and philosophy of these well trodden tales with a musical theatre form. The search for happiness and its inversion in the second act questions not only our daily moral dilemmas but our innate understanding of moral guidelines, the very messages these tales were designed to teach.
Fiasco Theater's production, stripped down to the bare essentials with a daring cast of ten actors who multi-role and provide their own accompaniment is perhaps the finest production of Into the Woods I've had the pleasure of seeing. There's something wholly refreshing about the presentation, which never feels 'gimmicky' – instead it feels purely honest, organic and utterly compulsory. Set against a beautiful multi-functional space suggesting the bowels of a piano, where the crossed musical strings become trees, the focus on the music and orchestration is explored in a highly effective and consistently joyful manner. Frank Galgano and Matt Castle's genius orchestrations share out the score amongst the highly skilled ensemble who make music from tuned instruments through to spoons and suitcases. With the music laid bare, the ear focuses in on the genius lyrics, and the cast are able to reinvent numbers such as “It Takes Two” and allow the wordplay to dictate their rediscoveries.
This may not be the most finely sung delivery of Sondheim's score, which includes a string of take-away melodies that'll have you whistling all the way home, but it's so finely acted that it barely matters. Whilst many revivals rely on a mixture of star power and stunt casting which can unevenly weight the ensemble nature of the show, instead this stage is so balanced you're constantly aware that everyone is rowing in strokes together. The journey from book into song is perfectly placed, blending the text seamlessly with the lyrics, making the music a key part of the story telling. Subtle changes to the book allow for a sharper and firmer focus on Lapine's carefully crafted messages. Gone are the moralising roadblocks that mark each of the midnights (“the slotted spoon can catch the potato”) making each of the narratives distinctly specific.
Jessie Austrian's Baker's Wife has a charming delivery and natural comedy that brings out the subtleties in the text, matched alongside Ben Steinfeld's Baker, who has one of the strongest voices and provides the most memorable vocal of the evening with the second act “No More”. There's excellent work from Patrick Mulryan's Jack and Emily Young's double duty as Little Red and Rapunzel. The show works because they never patronise their characters – they're always fully human and never allowed to wallow in fairy-tale sentimentality.
Despite numerous revivals and of course the now popular Disney film, Into the Woods is a musical that runs the risk of being overexposed. The beauty of Fiasco's revival is that through its deconstruction and rebuilding of the musical, you're forced to revisit it with a fresh perspective and clear mind. For fans of the show, it offers a bold and expertly crafted reinvention of a musical theatre classic, and above all a perceptive and insightful display of the boundaries of live theatre.
What the Press Said...
"Misgivings melted away under the double-glare of both the company’s talent and tenacity and this 30-year-old musical’s innate capacity to enchant."
Dominic Maxwell for The Telegraph
"The production manages to be joyously ingenious and teasingly incongruous without seeming too pleased with itself. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Fiasco’s inventive, vigorous version of Stephen Sondheim’s modern fairytale doesn’t entirely mask the problems of James Lapine’s convoluted book."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"But above all — and aptly for a musical that ultimately celebrates working together — this is an ingenious ensemble show. “Careful the wish you make,” they warn as they leave. Indeed."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times