The Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods world-premiered at the Old Globe in 1986. The set had three structures, fixed, and a “woods” behind. Along with fairy tale characters — Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), and Rapunzel — there were a Baker and his Wife, Snow White, and the three little pigs, all scampering about.
The piece felt like rush hour at Grand Central Station. The Globe’s current offering, “reimagined” by the Fiasco Theater, has practically turned the original inside-out.
As in Story Theater, props, instruments, and performers remain off to the sides, visible throughout. On the rear wall, thick, copper colored strings overlap like piano wires. They also serve as the woods and, lit by Tim Cryan’s spectacular effects, offer symbolic resonances as well. The side walls are junk-heaps of rusty piano parts.
So, Story Theater performed inside a piano?
The biggest change: the 1986 version was geared for Broadway, and Broadway ticket prices. The costumes and set flowered with opulence and color. The look meant to impress, even at the risk of stealing focus.
Fiasco’s ten performers, who interact with the audience in the pre-show, would be more comfortable at a 19th-century barn dance than the Great White Way: the men, suspenders over the tops of long-johns, the women, frumpy white garments.
This is a humble, folksy version of Into the Woods. The cast freely shares the storytelling and the stage. They don’t have the best trained voices — and they leap for cute effects far more than would wiser angels dare — but overall the approach works surprisingly well.
Sondheim and Lapine noticed that, in order to live happily ever after, the characters in Grimm’s fairy tales committed “little dishonesties.” Though the tales usually sweep them aside, Into the Woods puts each under a microscope and examines the consequences (“Want to know what’s evil? Nice people’s lies”).
To weave the stories of Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella together, Lapine devised a treasure hunt. The Baker and his Wife are cursed not to have children. They can lift the spell by finding a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold (in the Grimm account, Cinderella’s slippers are gold, not glass).
Act one’s the search; Act two’s the consequences, summed up in the blame-bombing, “Your Fault.” This amazing number’s like a photographic negative of Act one: as the characters spit accusations at each other, they recall the “evil” acts.
The production is gracefully woven as well. Co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, and choreographer Lisa Shriver, have orchestrated a seamless, ensemble flow that keeps the story foremost. The cast makes up in versatility what some lack in vocal aplomb. Along with Matt Castle playing an upright piano throughout, the group demonstrates competence with a French horn, trumpet, guitar, banjo, bassoon, various drums, and enough sound effects for a radio-play.
Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, playing through August 10.