When die-hard Stephen Sondheim fans hear of a major new production of a title from the master’s canon, they “wish… more than anything, more than the moon” that it will be faithful to the text and honor what’s come before, yet still give them more to see. The touring Fiasco Theater production of “Into the Woods” now at the Golden Gate Theatre scores on all counts.
The phrase “stripped down” can strike terror in the hearts of musical theater fans, but Sondheads left wanting by the spare John Doyle revivals of “Sweeney Todd” or “Company” will find nothing to fear here beyond the customary wolf, witch, and couple of giants.
The company, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, demonstrates an unbridled love for and deep understanding of this fractured fairy tale that brings Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel and other fantasy characters together on a yearning and sometimes sorrowful quest for happiness “ever after.” They also mine the humor to the edges of vaudeville without crossing that line.
Backed by a striking wall of rope trees lit in glowing green and framed by piano keyboards and chandeliers, the stage is strewn with imaginatively-used props, deployed, discarded and re-used by a band of 10 actors cleverly serving double or even triple character duty via some lightning fast changes.
The one-piano orchestra (the unbelievably talented Evan Rees) glides around the stage augmented by notes of cello, oboe, percussions or banjo played by actors waiting for their next scene. The whole enterprise has the merry, impromptu feel of “Godspell” or, more recently, “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
The joy in this production is that the onstage antics never overpower James Lapine’s complex web of interwoven plots and themes. As important, they never detract from the richly beautiful score that includes “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone.” Except for some muddiness in the Witch’s rap early in the show, every word of Sondheim’s wonderfully intricate lyrics is crystal clear even from the back of the theater, a tribute to a very skillful troupe of singers and some exceptionally nuanced sound design.
In an ensemble this talented and tightly-knit, it’s almost unfair to call out an individual for recognition. Even so, attention must be paid – as if he gives you a choice – to Darick Pead, who is a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon come to life as the beloved bovine, Milky White, among his varied clutch of roles.
Into the Woods
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 2
Tickets: $60 to $225
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com