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So this is what John Doyle hath wrought. In the last decade, the Tony-winning director’s stripped-down approach to American musicals (composer Stephen Sondheim’s in particular) has become the latest theatrical fad. It boils down to a simple formula: Take a classic score, assign the instrumental parts to the actors (re-orchestrating as necessary), and minimize the sets (and costumes) so that everything has the barebones feeling of Our Town. It worked for Doyle’s star-studded Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, with Patti LuPone as a tuba-blowing Mrs. Lovett, and to some extent for his encore revival of Sondheim’s Company with Raul Esparza.
But now it seems that every young theatrical troupe wants to mount a revival according to Doyle. The latest is the innovative Fiasco Theater Company, which brings its shoestring revival of Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy-tale mashup Into the Woods to Roundabout’s Off Broadway Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. This is Fiasco’s first musical, following widely acclaimed productions of classics like Cymbeline and Measure for Measure that relied on a similar economy of scale: minimal sets and props, and a tight-knit band of actors doubling (and tripling) roles.
But not every show holds up to this sort of treatment, nor does it suit every venue. What may have seemed plucky and ingenious in a downtown space, or on a college campus, doesn’t necessarily play the same way in a more established midtown theater like the Roundabout.
There’s much to admire in Fiasco’s 10-actor production of Into the Woods. Fiasco veteran Andy Grotelueschen, looking like a bearded Williamsburg butcher, is the best Milky White I’ve ever seen; in addition to bringing a bovine winsomeness to the wordless role of the beloved cow of Jack (of beanstalk fame), he also triples up as Rapunzel’s prince and (hilariously) as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. Fiasco cofounders Ben Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian make fine impressions as the childless Baker and his Wife, blending in sweet-voiced harmony on the Act One duet “It Takes Two.” And there are clever touches throughout, from the mounted stuffed dog head that Noah Brody employs to play the Wolf to the shadow-puppet depiction of the Giantess.
But there’s a fundamental distinction between elemental and elementary, and too often Fiasco’s Into the Woods has the look and feel of a really good collegiate or community theater production. (Perhaps it’s no accident that Fiasco’s core membership met as MFA students at Brown/Trinity Rep.) There are the simple costumes and sets, the cast who all seem roughly the same age despite a wider disparity in the seniority of their characters, the slightly uneven performances. You half expect Mickey or Judy to pop up from the wings to remind everyone, Let’s put on a show.
The real shortcoming here is the treatment of Sondheim’s delightful, earworm-heavy score. John Doyle’s performers made more than a passing effort to play their instruments, and the re-orchestrations made musical sense. No such luck here. There are some whimsical additions (toy piano, xylophone, whistle), but the bulk of the score is rendered in piano (by onstage musical director Matt Castle) and cello (by Paul L. Coffee, who also plays the tiny role of the Mysterious Man). The rest of the cast assay an odd mix of instruments (French horn, bassoon) without much demonstrable skill — too often their warbling notes actually detract from the overall sound quality. At times, the effect is jarringly amateurish.
Perhaps fittingly, this version of Into the Woods has its moments — and it’s glorious to hear Sondheim’s tunes and some of the wittiest, tongue-twistingest lyrics of the last century. But if life were only moments, as the Baker’s Wife sings, then you’d never know you’d had one. Grade: C+