Review: “Into the Woods” at the Golden Gate Theatre (tour)

Fiasco’s production of Into the Woods has no business performing in the Golden Gate Theatre’s 2,297-seat auditorium. This production, which is presented in the Paul Sills’ Story Theatre-inspired style of such shows as Peter and the Starcatcher or The Old Man and the Old Moon features a cast of 10, who all play their own instruments, an extra pianist, and not so much of a set as a ladder and a collection of found-object props in order to create the extremely elaborate environments of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 meta-musical. The staging is cluttered and very messy, but also brimming with creativity and imagination and works so well (and is so proportionally inexpensive to produce) that I’d be surprised if this style weren’t to become standard for future Into the Woods performances. It is also fundamentally small theatre, and deserves to be seen in a performance space small enough where the ramshackle quality can be appreciated rather than looking like the producers aren’t willing to spend the money to create a proper Into the Woods. That being said, you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of this Into the Woods just because it fundamentally feels too small for the space its presented in.

As for Into the Woods, the show itself remains exactly what it was 30 years ago. The first act features most of your favorite Grimm’s fairy tale characters simultaneously completing their respective stories over the course of three days, tied together by the previously unknown Baker and his Wife, who are seeking a bizarre menagerie of objects in order to reverse a curse placed upon them by a Witch that doesn’t allow them to have children, reaching an apparent conclusion at the first curtain, before picking up in a second act that asks “what happens after ever after?”. It turns out that the characters’ happily ever after was only temporary, and their actions in completing their quests ultimately have rather terrifying consequences later in life. The first act is chaotic and would make Feydeau weep at its plot construction, but thanks to Sondheim’s dazzling lyric wit (the Witch’s Rap is perhaps the best instance of wordplay in all of the American musical theatre) and Lapine’s phenomenally funny book, it reaches something close to musical theatre bliss. However, the second act stomps all over the fun that everyone was having in favor of heavy-handed lecturing to the audience. Of course, the point of Into the Woods is within the second act, but the jarring contrast in tones between the acts makes a second half that could be profound coming off as unnecessarily drab and more pleased with itself than desiring to please an audience.

While I was very impressed by the staging by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, I was less so by the performances of the cast, who seem to push the comedy too hard for for its own good, seemingly missing the entire tone of Lapine’s bone-dry humor, though I did appreciate Darick Pead’s clownish performance as the cow Milky White and Lisa Helmi Johanson’s perfectly prudent pair of performances as Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel. Ultimately, it’s difficult to experience these characters being performed in any other way than the absolutely definitive ones of the original cast, which is readily available for viewing and makes any other interpretations ultimately feel unnecessary. Derek McLane’s scenic design was an endlessly enjoyable delight, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting was beautifully evocative.

If you are familiar with Into the Woods or have a particular penchant for ingenious stagings, you should absolutely go see this production. Otherwise, there are better ways to experience the show for the first time without dropping a hundred dollars or even having to leave the house.

Into the Woods plays at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco through April 2nd. Tickets and information available here.

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