Review: Fiasco’s ‘Into the Woods’ at SHN uses the simple for the grand

Into the Woods

The bright and dark nature of “Into the Woods” is showcased nightly at the Golden Gate Theatre through April 2nd. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Cinderella has dreams of going to the King’s festivities, yet her two stepsisters and her horrendous stepmother go without her. Instead of going to the grand, majestic ball, Cinderella enters the woods to visit her mother’s eternal resting place, looking to feel a spirit that may guide her.

The hapless Jack saunters around with his useless cow, aptly named “Milky White.” The only thing this cow is good for is saying “moo.” There is no milk, there is no hope, and Jack and Milky White are moments from severing their ties over a few useless beans.

And of course there’s the Baker and his wife, searching for special ingredients, which will help them break a curse and give them the child needed to complete their humble family.

The setup for the venerable Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Into the Woods,” first premiering on Broadway in 1987, is fraught with foreboding. There are witches, wolves, monsters and dreams that await these and other characters who venture through these woods, all with a type of hope and idealism that what they are searching for is around the corner and through the trees.

Fiasco Theater Company’s wholly scaled down version of this breathtaking show , playing through April 2nd at the Golden Gate Theatre, hits all the right notes, and submits to the audience in ways that are both unifying and exhilarating. In the hands of each spectator is the power to use their own imaginations, greatly helped by a Brechtian version of the show, one that sees a cast of 10 on the stage at all times, creating sounds and following around a piano as it moves wily about the stage.

What is so beautifully timeless about the play is that it shows the human desire of searching, the sense of adventure that people look for, and the lengths one will go to bring a life that may be loaded with nothing in order to make a life worth living or dying for.

In a show that goes against the grain and the construct of what a Broadway show often does, a scaled down production that plays like a simple set of fairytales out of a book leans heavily on their performers, because there are so few of them. This is where the show soars with verve. This small cast, instead of just acting and singing, are responsible for every convention that makes a theatre production what it is – sound effects, instruments, ambience, all on designer Derek McLane’s deliciously metaphoric set.

As the Baker and the Baker’s wife, Evan Harrington and Eleasha Gamble have probably the most empathetic turns based on their story arc. Harrington in particular, with his Everyman look and sensibilities, does wonderful work, especially in his act two number “No More.”

The cynical and dire turn the play takes in act two is sharp, challenging the “happily ever after” part of the fairy tale. Of course the story ends with the wedding and carriage rides. But maybe Jack (Patrick Mulryan) desires the danger of the sky, Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer) probably could use a hobby and Milky White (Darick Pead) is just not mooing the way he used to.

Characters who are searching for idealism are compromised by deadly sins. Take the Prince (Anthony Chatmon II, brilliant in multiple roles), who woos the Baker’s wife with ease in the gently funny number “No More,” using the woods as an excuse for gallivanting. And when all is said and done, when boredom sets in for these seemingly great guys, it is realized that there are other princesses in glass cases or with very small friends, yet only so many Prince Charmings.

Fiasco’s “Into the Woods” does something special, and that’s take a classic that has its own history with big scales and puts the story back into the palm of the audience’s hands. Pulling a costume from a trunk, or making a bird out of a small scrap of paper may not look all that Broadway, but it sure helps tell one helluva story. And in theatre, there is nothing more important than that.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “Into the Woods”
A production of the Fiasco Theater Company
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
The Word: A scaled down version of the show that uses some aesthetically pleasing minimalism to showcase one of Sondheim’s greatest pieces.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through April 2nd
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with one 20 minute intermission
The Golden Gate Theater
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $60 – $275
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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