Talent trumps spectacle in this ‘Into The Woods’ revival

This is the re-imagination of a classic that you didn’t know you were waiting for – Fiasco Theater’s “Into the Woods.” The surprise of the season is playing the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square now through  January 29, 2017.

from-left-lisa-helmi-johanson-as-rapunzel-and-vanessa-reseland-as-the-witch-in-into-the-woods
From left – Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzel and Vanessa Reseland as The Witch in ‘Into The Woods’

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by James Lapine, the direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld leads the audience down a magical path not laden with flashy scenery, over-the-top costumes, or a crazy light show, but with the passion of brave actors bearing their souls within the land of Once Upon A Time.

laurie-veldheer-center-as-cinderella-in-into-the-woods
Laurie Veldheer (center) as Cinderella in ‘Into the Woods’

“Happily ever after” begins with a myriad of characters with solo tales, and eventually interweaves everyone into each other. The fairy tale quests and adventures of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella are all given life on the stage. Pulled together by the story of a Baker and his Wife, along with the mysterious lurkings of a Mysterious Man, the twists and turns of finding one’s true desire are played out with love, laughter, and healthy heaping of drama.

the-company-of-the-fiasco-theater-production-of-into-the-woods
The Company of ‘Into The Woods’

The most notable “update” to this production is the overall look of the show. Instead of gazing upon a forest set of trees in a lifelike wooded area, the eyes feast upon the walls of piano skeletons, hanging chandeliers, and a deep backdrop of ropes. It is gorgeous.

The cast does away with the fourth wall of traditional theater, interacting with members of the crowd before each act begins, and maintaining those relationships during the show. The cast also acts as an audience, watching one another from the stage for the entirety of the performance.

the-company-of-into-the-woods
The Company of ‘Into The Woods’

Simple items become imagined props and places: a ladder is a tower, a feather duster is a goose, a piece of paper is a bird, a dress form is a great tree. And the cast is so earnest in their portrayals of each moment that the audience can’t NOT believe in each of these seemingly ordinary items right along with them.

laurie-veldheer-as-cinderella-and-bonne-kramer-as-cinderellas-stepmother-in-into-the-woods-photo-by-joan-marcus
The Company of ‘Into The Woods’

The classically-trained actors are what sell the story. Although it’s maybe easier to overlook some of the phenomenal characterization in another production that may have tons of technical elements and eye candy, this production emphasizes the focus and intention of each cast member. There are no giant dance numbers to fade behind. There are no pounds of makeup to hide beneath. There are no smoke and mirrors to distract from the honest work being done by these accomplished company members, who are playing many roles.

lisa-helmi-johanson-as-little-red-ridinghood-and-anthony-chatmon-ii-as-the-wolf-in-fiasco-theaters-into-the-woods
Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red and Anthony Chatmon II as The Wolf in ‘Into The Woods’

With instruments on the stage and actors doubling as musicians, the well-rounded troupe excels at all tasks. With the piano at center and engaging in all of the chaos, Sean Peter Forte does a phenomenal job as the director/pianist (subbing for Evan Rees at the time of the review). 

vanessa-reseland-as-the-witch-in-into-the-woods-photos-by-joan-marcus
Vanessa Reseland as The Witch in ‘Into The Woods’

There so many treats in this production, but one special favorite is the character of Milky White being played by an actual person instead of the standard prop cow. Darick Pead provides an unexpected layer of fun to an already great shtick.

The interactions between Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife are also very fun and enjoyable. Eleasha Gamble (Baker’s Wife) and Laurie Veldheer are wonderful both together and separately.

The princes are especially entertaining in their “Agony” sequences, with kudos to the horseback riding skills of Anthony Chatmon II and Darick Pead.

Finally, among the many touching moments in this production is the Baker’s gut-wrenching presentation of “No More,” where Evan Harrington sits at the edge of the stage and tugs at audience heart strings with his gorgeous singing and his spirit full of longing. Chills.

Fiasco Theater’s revival production of “Into the Woods” is charming and delighting with the proper amount of heartbreak, and runs at the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square now through January 29, 2017. Tickets are $10-$90, and can be purchased through playhousesquare.org or 216-241-6000.

Design Team
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Whitney Locher
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Darron L West and Charles Coes

Approximate run time for the show is 2 hours and 30 minutes.

*Show photos by Joan Marcus

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