Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Magic and imagination have always been central to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods, but the production from New York City's Fiasco Theater, now on tour in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater in Washington, DC, takes that element to a new level. The sheer joy of invention in Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld's direction, added to a sparkling cast of 10 actor-musicians and indefatigable pianist Evan Rees, means the audience will have a lot to enjoy in a production that goes in many unexpected directions.
The first clue to the company's creative sense comes from Derek McLane's scenic design. Within a false proscenium that appears to have been made of piano keys, slices of a grand piano cascade down the side walls of the set. Numerous mismatched chandeliers hang above the stage, the rear wall is made of ropes, and loose pieces of scenery including a grandfather clock, a stepladder, and Rees' upright piano are scattered about the playing area. The actors appear onstage before the action begins; some of them greet audience membersspecifically Eleasha Gamble, a Washington favorite here playing the Baker's Wife.
So, what's so innovative about this particular production of Into the Woods? The first thing is the audacious doubling and tripling of roles, which allows Lisa Helmi Johanson to play both assertive Little Red Riding Hood (with long braids) and troubled Rapunzel (in a wig knitted from yellow yarn) and gives Darick Pead the opportunity to bring intense emotion and attitude to the role of Milky White the cow (probably the most engaging single characterization) when he isn't playing Rapunzel's Prince or Cinderella's stepsister Florinda. The cast members work so closely together that there can't be any weak links, and there aren't.
The main thing is that the directors make the audience members co-conspirators in creating the stage illusions. When folded pieces of paper become a flock of birds, or the Wolf (Anthony Chatmon II) pursuing Red Riding Hood is actually an actor crouching behind a stuffed wolf's head, or (as also happens) cast members occasionally take seats at the edges of the stage and play instruments as needed, it's all part of an immersive experience.
Christopher Akerlind's lighting design largely depends on stage washes of green or blue, while Whitney Locher's costumes are mostly utilitarian with flourishes as needed, such as the sparkling ballgown for Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer) and the loose patchwork throw that the Witch (Vanessa Reseland) wears over her black slip and wrapper. Many of the props are unexpected and surprisingly funny. The sound design by Darron L. West and Charles Coes comes into its own in the second act, when the characters have to deal with an external threat more audible than visible.