NEW YORK — Why go "Into the Woods" through the musical play when the big, splashy Disney movie is everywhere? Because a streamlined, refreshingly irreverent version of the 1987 theatrical classic by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is being performed live in New York City.
Good and evil were upended in Lapine and Sondheim's fractured fairytale mash-up about wishes and the primal value of storytelling. Familiar Grimm Brothers storybook characters are combined with Lapine's own dark invention of a childless baker, his wife and a witch. Basically, all these characters make wishes and end up in the same forest, where they learn that wishes "come true, not free."
The homespun and witty Fiasco Theater production that opened Thursday night at Roundabout's off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre presents the twisted, ambiguous tale with childlike simplicity. Co-directors and performers Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld steer their troupe of 10 through ingenious staging, with clever choreography and plenty of zaniness, performing the cautionary bedtime story with heartfelt emotion.
The lush score is handled by 11 voices and one piano, with a few other instruments occasionally chiming in. Music director Matt Castle enthusiastically performs onstage at a sturdy upright piano. Sondheim's wistful, haunting songs, like "Children Will Listen" and "No One Is Alone," resonate in the intimate theater, bookended by rousing versions of the title anthem.
Brody and Andy Grotelueschen are hilariously simpering as Cinderella's mean stepsisters and are robustly insincere as a pair of hammy princes. They have great fun with their double duets of "Agony," sung sincerely about unrequited love in Act 1, then later reprised with adulterous longing. Typical of the production's breezy tone is the sheer silliness of Brody and Grotelueschen galloping around on broomstick horses, and Grotelueschen's petulant portrayal of the cow, Milky White.
Jennifer Mudge is a beautifully voiced Witch. Her numbers about overprotective parents, "Our Little World" and "Stay With Me," are touchingly sung with her daughter Rapunzel. Emily Young plays Rapunzel and a feisty Little Red Riding Hood, and Steinfeld lends a grounding appeal as the Baker. Jessie Austrian glows as the Baker's increasingly confident wife, while Claire Karpen is an endearing Cinderella.
Little Red Riding Hood defiantly sings "I Know Things Now" after being rescued from the Wolf, and beanstalk-climbing Jack (a sweet portrayal by Patrick Mulryan) poignantly reflects on "Giants in the Sky."
Whitney Locher's vaguely 19th-century peasant costumes and a lack of furniture allow the characters' emotions and the music to take prominence. Inventive props include a crocheted headdress to disfigure the Witch, pieces of sheet music turned into fluttering birds and a smartly streamlined creation of the Giant.
These woods are deep and dark, and life is full of unknowns, but, as Sondheim enables his characters to realize, "Into the woods/and through the fear,/you have to take the journey."