Credit: Joan Marcus

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It’s clear why Fiasco Theater’s production of Into the Woods was extended twice when it played at The Roundabout in New York. The show, now on stage at The Kennedy Center, is a shining example of a wildly effective less-is-more approach to art. The original Broadway production in 1987 featured 19 cast members—including big names like Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason—was nominated for 10 Tony awards, and won three. It was a big deal, with big production values.  

But the core elements of Fiasco’s version—from the cast of 10 who double as musicians to the quick costume changes done behind pianos and couches on stage, and the simple props (folded slips of paper become chirping birds, a ladder does double duty as a tower and a tree, and a knitted yellow hat becomes Rapunzel’s flowing hair)—make the whole endeavor feel like an entirely charmed and charming shoestring-style romp. It’s the antithesis of the 2014 Rob Marshall film, which was all shine and glamor; the film and the many over-engineered stage productions over the years do not hold a candle to Fiasco’s efforts to produce simple but thoughtful theatrical magic.  

Stephen Sondheim’s book and James Lapine’s lyrics are famous for their twisted, revisionist approach to familiar fairy tales by The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. Here we have Little Red Ridinghood (Lisa Helmi Johanson, who doubles as Rapunzel) meeting up in the woods with Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame, played here by Phillipe Arroyo, who performs double duty as Steward), Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer, who also plays Ridinghood’s Granny) and several other recognizable characters from age-old stories. Though the original tales move toward more-or-less happy endings, the musical grants many wishes only to pluck them away or strike down the wishers with some horrible and unexpected turn of events. So: Jack’s giant’s wife stalks the land on a killing spree, and Cinderella’s prince (a wickedly compelling and versatile Anthony Chatmon II, who doubles as The Wolf and Lucinda) is all charm, but no fidelity.  

The story and its songs serve as a cautionary tale about the happily-ever-after narratives we feed our children, and the ensemble handles this tendency toward preachy text with such a thoughtful touch that we are swept up in the various hardships and griefs of beloved characters, even the ones who don’t behave so well. Vanessa Reseland’s Witch, for example, goes from wicked to pitiable in a wonderfully thoughtful and varying performance that’s as well sung as it is acted. Reseland totally commits to the cranky old witch in the musical’s early scenes, then springs on us a sexy diva that is equally compelling.  

There are no good guys or bad girls in the text; every character is seen as erring, human, and capable of goodness. Fiasco’s general collective vibe of scrappiness and rustic, rude mechanical pluck really brings the proceedings directly into that grey area between villain and hero, which is exactly where this story belongs. This skilled cast makes us seeunder the smart and resourceful direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeldthat the woods are sometimes scary, dark, and deep, but we all have to go there from time to time. Coming out on the other side is not guaranteed, but finding friends and love in the thick of it is possible.  

And if the deliberately folksy props handled with total imagination and ingenuity don’t make you swoon over this company’s creativity, Derek McLane’s set design will. A menagerie of magic harps covers one wall, a collection of chandeliers hangs above the stage, and thick ropes create a woodsy curtain behind the players—these are fairytale touches of the most whimsical order, and yet a certain grounded earthiness in the aesthetic keeps us connected to the more realistic elements of the text.  

There’s no better way to kick off the holidays than a visit to these woods. 

At the Kennedy Center to Jan. 8, 2017. 2700 F St. NW. $49-$175.