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Into the Woods, Sondheim's Twisted Fairytale Musical, Itself Gets a Twist

Into the Woods takes well-known fairy tales like "Cinderella," and turns them on their heads.
Into the Woods takes well-known fairy tales like "Cinderella," and turns them on their heads.
Joan Marcus

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Into the Woods, opens today at the Winspear Opera House, but it’s not the show you’re used to.

This version is a bare bones, stripped down story that forces the audience to use their imaginations and enter the woods themselves. But don’t worry, says music director Evan Rees, the music is there and it’s as magical as ever.

A cast of only 11 actors are outfitted with instruments and  play multiple characters. Rees sits upon the stage with a piano, taking the place of the Narrator.

Fiasco Theater's reimagining of the musical made waves when it first appeared in 2015.

The collaborative, ensemble-driven play lends itself well to this kind of paring down. Fiasco describes itself as an “actor-driven theater” so the match seems made in heaven. It is not a story that belongs to only one character, and Fiasco capitalized on that well.

Into the Woods premiered on Broadway in 1987, starring Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien and Bernadette Peters, and won a score of Tony awards that year. It’s been revived numerous times and got a feature film treatment in 2014, starring Meryl Streep.

The musical is an amalgam of several different fairy tales woven together, with the main characters drawn from "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Little Red Riding Hood." The first act of the musical introduces all the familiar fairy tales and their characters; the second act turns all of the stories on their heads.

Rees is a Sondheim junky. In fact, he’s not really into “pop” music. He spends hours of his day playing Sondheim, and perhaps some classical music for fun. The young musician has approached the composer like a challenge.

Sondheim has been known as especially difficult to perform and sing because of all of the purposeful irregularities he inserts into his music. For Rees, this challenge is part of the fun and the beauty of the composer. It’s part of the story Sondheim tells, he says.

Rees first linked up with Fiasco during the London production of Into the Woods. By then, it had already been picking up good press. A freelance musician at the time, Rees found an opportunity to audition and would later join the tour. A friendship with Matt Castle, one of the original co-orchestrators for the production, launched him into his position as musical director for the tour.

The young musician is sentimental. He has an affinity for Disney musicals and found himself especially enchanted by the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson.

He also returns often to one of his favorite musicals, Once Upon a Mattress, the 1959 musical-comedy adaptation of "The Princess and the Pea." He says it’s one of his favorites and also grossly underrated as a musical. Those interests have set him up well for his current gig as storyteller for one of the greatest fairy tale musicals of our time.

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Where he once made a living freelancing and teaching piano lessons, he’s now part of one of the most exciting productions making it’s way around the country. Much of the original cast remains intact, and Rees says he was fortunate to see it run in London and participate in that production.

For now, Rees lives and breathes Sondheim. He’s a puzzle, he says, and that’s exciting: Once you fully immerse yourself in his world, you realize there is a story being told through the composition.

For a cast of young, versatile actors and musicians, Rees is a perfect fit. The concise, imaginative production has been reworked by a group of artists who have also treated the play like a puzzle, dissecting the work to find what’s at its core.

Into the Woods, May 16-28, Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., tickets $25-$170 at attpac.org.

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