Into the Woods continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 17 September.
Rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s twisted fairytale mash-up. I never tire of its jaunty, clip-cloppy theme (‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ meets ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’), or the knottiness of the plot, or the emotional mangle that one’s wrung through by the end. Tears? Almost always. But Fiasco Theater’s stripped-back revival of Into the Woods at the Menier has done the seemingly impossible and rebooted the story for me entirely. Watching this inventive, charming and thoroughly engrossing revamp is like seeing this much-done show for the first time again.
It’s partly Derek McLane’s beautiful set, which looks like the inside of a giant exploded piano – a forest of thick piano wire covers the back of the stage, and a proscenium is formed from fragments of keyboard. It’s all very rough and ready, and already populated with its ragbag bunch of performers as you enter the intimate space.
It’s partly the extraordinary inventiveness with which this cast – of merely ten actors and a pianist – recount the myriad tales using whatever props are at hand. Rolling pins, bowls, a feather duster, a pair of curtains… they’re all utilised in such amusing and surprising ways that you’re forever engaged and dazzled by the ingenuity.
And it’s partly the reduced scoring by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle, all played by the actor-muso cast. The quirky orchestration, like the props, picks up what’s lying around the stage: the main piano, yes, but also a plinky-plonky toy piano, a child’s glockenspiel, a bass drum, swanee whistles and, very effectively, an eery waterphone (a percussion instrument with metal rods that are resonated using a violin bow). A cello and bassoon also add a warm depth to the score, while the occasional guitar and banjo add colour you’d not expect to hear in Into the Woods.
Ultimately, though, it’s the cast – all of them shipped in from Off-Broadway, where Fiasco enjoyed much success with the show last year – that makes this an unforgettable production. All 19 characters are fleshed out by just ten performers (or 11 if you count pianist Evan Rees taking on the role of the fake Milky White), and there is not a weak link. There are a few judicious cuts in the text, the most significant being the narrator, whose role is shared out by the company, but otherwise you’d barely notice the reduced size of the ensemble.
Two performers are particularly notable: the hilarious Andy Grotelueschen as the show-stealing Milky White (yes, the cow steals the show!) and trebling as Rapunzel’s Prince and Lucinda; and a pregnant Jessie Austrian as, ironically, the barren Baker’s Wife, a character that she imbues with such humanity and truthfulness that you can easily forget that it’s all make-believe. Heck, I can’t leave out a mention of the brilliant Emily Young as Rapunzel and Little Red – both characters brought to manic life as you’ve never seen them before!
Importantly, Fiasco’s innovative style never overpowers the drama. Co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld – aka Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf/Florinda and The Baker respectively – know when to camp it up and when to apply the soft pedal, giving the more tender numbers at the end all the space they need to affect the audience. It’s masterfully done, reminiscent of Tooting Arts Club’s pie-shop Sweeney Todd in its ability to be inventive and intimate yet thoroughly affective.
This is definitely a fanboy production, created by theatre nerds for theatre nerds. It helps if you know Into the Woods inside out, because much of the comedy comes from joshing with the original text. Woods virgins might not get some of the jokes, or even follow what’s going on as clearly as they’d like – it’s all very pacy – but would it lessen the overall experience? Undoubtedly not. This is theatrical storytelling at its very best, whether you’re new to the show or not. Don’t miss it.
Tickets for Into the Woods are available HERE.
Look out for an interview with Fiasco’s co-director Noah Brody – coming soon!