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BWW Review: Fiasco Theater Gets Creative with INTO THE WOODS at Kennedy Center


Following critical and popular success in London and Off-Broadway, Fiasco Theater's lean treatment of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine's (book) classic musical theatre piece Into the Woods has set out on a national tour, which includes a stop at the Kennedy Center through January 8. While those seeking a similarly scaled production to the original Broadway production (or even the revival) might leave the Eisenhower Theatre somewhat disappointed, those open to experiencing a new interpretation of the familiar material might leave feeling they've had an opportunity to look at an old favorite with new eyes. Perhaps they might better appreciate what drew them to the story in the first place.

Unless you've been living under a rock - especially since a popular movie adaptation of the musical came out with Meryl Streep - you probably know the story. Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel, and Little Red Ridinghood live in the same woods. Like the Baker and his wife - who will stop at nothing to reverse a Witch's spell so that they can start a family - they're all in search of something. Their searches are not done in a vacuum. Through various peaks and valleys, they all realize that their quest for something better is not without unintended consequences. Happy endings aren't a guarantee either. If they do happen, the happiness may not be everlasting. Inevitably, something unexpected happens and it will put all that you desire and value at risk. Many lessons can be learned not only in the quest for something better, but also in navigating the unintended, secondary consequences of that quest.

Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have assembled an enormously talented cast of ten to regale us with these familiar fairytales now intertwined. The cast enters the stage before the show begins and some even interact with the audience. Others chat with one another until its showtime. One thing is clear. They're actors putting on a play for the audience - and they're ready to rely on themselves to make it happen, using whatever means necessary. Whether they're accompanying themselves on instruments along with Music Director Evan Rees on piano, moving set pieces, and/or portraying multiple characters - what you see is what you get. The audience is exposed to nearly all of the inner-workings of the production and every movement is carefully and precisely choreographed.

This approach has its pitfalls and opportunities. Because many cast members are tasked to play two (or even three) roles, opportunities abound for inventive acting choices and comedy. For example, Anthony Chatmon II and Darick Pead play Cinderella and Rapunzel's princes respectively, but they're also called upon to portray Lucinda and Florinda, Cinderella's stepsisters. They physically transform themselves at the drop of a hat by holding stepsister-like costumes (Whitney Locher) on a rod in front of themselves or putting on a funny hat. The more easily amused in the audience might burst out in laughter (as it did on opening night), but even if you aren't amused by such things, you have to admire the ingenuity (I did). By the same token, there are numerous opportunities for the actors to showcase their versatility. For example, Lisa Helmi Johanson plays Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel. Depending on the scene, she can be snarky and assertive (Little Red Ridinghood), romantic toward her love interest, or angry about the life her mother created for her (Rapunzel).

Another opportunity comes with the storytelling. The actors have to be completely on point to properly communicate the story. Every step and every line must be completed completely according to plan. Otherwise, they'll be running around in circles, tripping over each other, and line delivery will be extremely confusing. Threads of the story will be lost. Because the actors have to concentrate so much on what they have to do to tell the story- both physically and emotionally - we're treated to much more invested performances than we otherwise might expect. The focus is on storytelling - and that's a good thing. Nothing can be hidden in a flashy technical sequence (for example, the Witch's transformation).

However, there are pitfalls - and they mostly come in the music area. While Rees is fully and seamlessly integrated into the production, and it's fun to see a few of the cast members add some instrumental variety to the proceedings at times (Fred Rose - the Mysterious Man - plays the cello, for instance and Bonne Kramer - Cinderella's Stepmother and Jack's Mother - interestingly enough plays the bassoon), I have to say as a music nerd that I missed the fuller, more sonically complete, and intricate sound an orchestra can generate. This is not to say that Frank Galgano and Matt Castle's orchestrations are bad though. They're really quite good given the nature of the production. Many of the cast members are also talented instrumentalists. I just tend to cringe at most "John Doyle-like" approaches to staging musicals and felt the lack of a full orchestra did a particular injustice to Sondheim's exquisite score.

On the flip side, the performers are asked to give a lot more vocally to make it all work. In this case, they do so with much success. Anthony Chatmon II and Darick Pead, as the two princes, achieve a nice full sound and enviable harmonic blend on "Agony." They sell the song and then some. The enormously talented Eleasha Gamble (Baker's Wife) is also a standout vocalist and provides a technically stellar and emotionally resonant rendition of "Moments in the Woods." I miss seeing her on DC area stages, but I am very glad the rest of the country has the opportunity to see her in a featured and prominent role. Like Ms. Gamble, Laurie Veldheer (Cinderella/Granny) and Vanessa Reseland (Witch) deliver exceptional vocal performances that not only showcase their strong voices, but service Sondheim's intricate, witty, and substantive lyrics. Veldheer's crystal clear voice serves her well on Cinderella's multiple numbers ("On the Steps of the Palace" being one). Reseland - also a strong and transformative actress with a commanding presence - delivers a very nice rendition of "Last Midnight." Her rich tone makes it very pleasant to hear. An engaging Evan Harrington (Baker) and the amusing and likeable Philippe Arroyo (Jack/Steward) round out the cast of strong singer-actors.

The artistic vision also lends itself for some other kinds of creativity of the technical variety. The less is more approach with the props deserves a special mention here. A great example of this work is the use of folded paper to represent Cinderella's bird friends. The way the Giant is portrayed is also particularly interesting. It will not be spoiled here, but shadows are involved and Darron L. West and Charles Coes' sound design is an asset. Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Derek McLane's scenic designs complement each other particularly well in the scene where the Baker is coming to terms with unimaginable loss. Locher's costume designs are an enormous help to distinguish one character from another, particularly when a single cast member is playing two or more roles. Lisa Schriver's choreography adds a layer of interest.

Is the production perfect? Of course not. However, it's worth a visit for those who appreciate creativity and want to experience the familiar musical in a different way.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

INTO THE WOODS plays at the John F. Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through January 8. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: The Company of INTO THE WOODS; by Joan Marcus.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry