Imagination at play in a simple but joyful 'Into the Woods'

Imagination at play in a simple but joyful 'Into the Woods'
Emily Young as Little Red Ridinghood and Noah Brody as Wolf in "Into the Woods." (Jim Cox)

"Into the Woods," the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical in which classic fairy tales are combined to tell a grown-up fable that might be called "Neurotically Ever After," is that rare thing — a Sondheim hit that critics have found lacking.

Sondheim's customary routine is the succès d'estime — prestige over box office. Not here. Lapine's book has trouble gathering its narrative strands. And then there's the more widespread problem of pat psychoanalytic interpretation.


Revivals of "Into the Woods" are always trying to rejigger the formula to make the most of an enchantment that somehow remains, like the wishes of its characters, tantalizing but just beyond reach.

An inventive production of "Into the Woods" has arrived at the Old Globe, where the musical was first unveiled in 1986. Fiasco Theater, a theatrical troupe created by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program, deploys some of the same playful simplicity that distinguished its touted off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."

The musical's shortcomings are still apparent, but the pared-down approach makes for a mostly agreeable encounter. Working with a budget that must be a tiny fraction of what was spent on the much-anticipated movie adaptation that comes out later this year, Fiasco makes the story — or rather the larky storytelling spirit — king.

A versatile company of 10 performers, many of whom are called on to play multiple roles, and a game pianist (music director Matt Castle) swirling about an old-fashioned upright, eagerly enter this strange "once upon a time" universe in which everyone is chasing their own illusion of happiness.

And what an all-star assembly it is! The guest list includes Cinderella (Claire Karpen), Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel (both played by Emily Young), Jack, climber of giant beanstalks (Patrick Mulryan), a baker (Ben Steinfeld) and his childless wife (Jessie Austrian), as well as a mean old witch (Alison Cimmet), a big bad wolf (Noah Brody) and a sweet dopey cow (Andy Grotelueschen), among outlandish others.

The staging, directed by company members Brody and Steinfeld, is less about musical showmanship than about the simple joy of imaginatively transporting oneself into a heightened fictional realm. A partial prop list gives a picture of the proceedings: a dressmaker's dummy (that serves as an occult tree), folded love letters and sheet music (that transform into fluttering birds), a couple of stick horses (for princes to ride) and a ladder (as a substitute for the tower that holds a certain golden-haired lass captive).

Against a surreal backdrop by scenic designer Derek McLane that's part forest, part musical instrument factory, the production, which began at Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center, keeps things uncluttered so that the busy actors and our equally busy imaginations won't be obstructed.

The humor is generous, much of it stemming from this joint act of make-believe. Where the staging is most childishly whimsical, the audience is made to feel in on the joke. This doesn't render the more puerile gags funny, but it keeps us from growing testy.

Musically, however, this revival is a diminished affair. There are actors, such as Steinfeld, who can sing as well as they can act, but most of these performers seem to be more comfortable delivering shtick than arias.

Cimmet's Witch is a lively creation, but she hardly has the vocal chops of Bernadette Peters, who originated the role on Broadway. Karpen's Cinderella does justice to the show's best-known tune, "No One Is Alone," but this song has been interpreted by so many legends that one must lower expectations a notch. Austrian gives us a winningly unfussy Baker's Wife, but Joanna Gleason's Tony-winning portrayal set the bar exceedingly high.

In previous productions, the music has provided an escape from the muddled book. Lapine's story is divided into two parts, the first involving the pursuit of dreams, the second demonstrating that even when dreams come true life has a way of fouling things up.

The trouble with this series of adventures, beyond the sprawl, is that the psychological wisdom is dispensed rather than earned. Sondheim and Lapine have already derived their lessons — it's as though they've adapted Bruno Bettelheim's interpretations rather than the original Grimm tales.

The absence of show-stopping musical moments focuses our attention on the drama, which can't always handle the scrutiny. The genial lightness of Fiasco's ensemble manner, however, keeps things buoyant. Sentimentality, an inherent danger, is held at bay.

The theatrical camaraderie of these resourceful performers is its own delight. Fiasco's love of spinning yarns wins you over even when the yarn falls short. And isn't that the ultimate lesson of "Into the Woods"? That no matter how your life may disappoint, the power to make a rollicking story is always there to redeem.