By the standards of the Golden Age, when musicals with a cast of 60 and an orchestra of 40 were common, Into the Woods is not a huge show. Its 1987 Broadway premiere featured just 19 actors in 23 roles, with 15 musicians in the pit. The second collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (the first was Sunday in the Park With George) is nevertheless huge in most other respects. Lapine’s fairy-tale-mash-up book covers a ton of plot, some of it so dense that even after dozens of viewings in as many versions I’m not sure I’ve got it all. (Especially the beans.) Then there’s Sondheim’s score, which for convenience is generally listed as some two dozen numbers, but is really a nearly continuous stream of more than 70 cues, many including avalanches of the cleverest, trickiest words ever corralled into song. And the ideas are big, too, ranging freely among considerations of fate and free will; responsibility to self and society; weak goodness and strong evil; perspective and relativism; good parenting and being a good child. In short, Into the Woods not only features a giant but is one.
You would not think anything less than the most generous payroll, the most seasoned performers, and the most elaborate staging — talking birds! transforming witches! — could support such an enterprise. But you would be wrong. Into the Woods is built like a Victorian curio, with gears of solid gold. I have seen it work beautifully with adolescents in high schools (the cast supplemented to include dozens of fairy-tale figures not actually in the script) and on Broadway with stars and on film with Meryl Streep. And now, with the Fiasco Theater’s production at the Roundabout, first staged in 2013 at the McCarter Theatre, I have seen it work in perhaps the most surprising reconfiguration yet: a radical downsizing. Ten actors (most of them double- and triple-cast) cover all of the roles, occasionally playing an instrument as well; otherwise a single pianist (Matt Castle) accompanies the whole thing. There are no stars, there is no pit, and there are no special effects that would not be available even to kids playing in the attic.
The set by Derek McLane in fact resembles an attic, or the inside of an abandoned storehouse in which a pile of pianos once exploded. Their skeletalized keyboards frame the proscenium; their strings, vastly enlarged, form a backdrop that passes gorgeously for woods. The keynote of the stripping-down is not poverty but imagination, so that the story proceeds in much the way it might if it were an actual fairy tale plucked from Grimm and read at bedtime with the lights off. As you probably know, it isn’t in fact a found tale, though it strips several for parts. In Act One, Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), and Rapunzel all wind up in the woods along with a childless couple concocted by Lapine. The genius of the idea was to make their needs all interdependent: In order to reverse a curse put on them by the neighborhood witch, the couple — a baker and his wife — must find, before three midnights pass, “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold.” They do; the others get what they want, too, and everything is set for the happily ever after except that Act Two is still to come, and with it the grim consequences.
Fiasco’s mission, or perhaps just its fate as a young company, is minimalism — an aesthetic that ought to put the pageantry of most Broadway musicals beyond its reach. And minimalism is not itself a virtue in any case. The more an “imaginative” production shows off its make-do workarounds, the more inert the drama. But Fiasco’s choices for Into the Woods mostly delight in the aptness and subservience of their illustration, thus supporting the story instead of sapping it. Red Ridinghood’s wolf is, as usual, played by the same actor as Cinderella’s prince, but rather than being unrecognizably made up, he merely holds a stuffed and mounted wolf head to indicate the switch (and suggest the similarities). Jack’s cow has no elaborate costume; she is portrayed by the marvelously deadpan Andy Grotelueschen with a bell, a baby bottle for an udder, and a small valise for her sad trip to market. Cinderella’s stepsisters are two men holding a curtain rod at their necks, the curtains suggesting flouncy dresses; her father, always a dim eminence, is an Old Master painting in its frame.
With so much plot to put over, and a pileup of ballads particularly in Act Two, Into the Woods is never going to be a quick tell. (Even the movie, which cut a lot, is more than two hours long.) And the Fiasco version restores a lot of useful material trimmed over the years. Unfortunately, this also makes the show feel slower than it needs to be. The lack of dramatic character transitions and elaborate scene changes (there’s really just a big ladder and some props) has another unintended side effect as well: the loss of surprise and sweep that can result from a careful manipulation of storytelling tempo. (The co-directors, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, play Cinderella’s Prince and the Baker, so perhaps it’s understandable that they do better with moment-by-moment effects than overall shaping.) And it has to be said that a similar trade-off has been made musically. However well played, and with whatever occasional filigree from a bassoon or trumpet on the sidelines, a single piano cannot render Sondheim’s intricate figures and textures with sufficient variety. One could wish for better singing, too.
But the movie — even granting that it probably involved a lot of Auto-Tuning — gave you as much vocal sheen and emotional lift as you could want. Streep’s renditions of “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” come right up to the edge of too much in their intensity and coloration. Jennifer Mudge’s take on the Witch in the Fiasco production may be less rich, but it has a compensatory value: It’s more human. And that’s true across the board. (Especially the cow.) The result is an Into the Woods that in highlighting the words highlights the way people fight with their fate rather than just succumb to it. We see the characters working out their philosophy on the fly. Other versions may emphasize the terrors of mortality, the danger of wishes. The movie, possibly because of Streep’s overwhelming presence, seemed to shift the story toward a consideration of the ineffable loss inherent in parenting. What makes Into the Woods a classic is that all of these stories are in there. Fiasco’s version is just the latest of its gorgeous transformations.
Into the Woods is at the Laura Pels Theatre, and its run has been extended through April 12.