‘Into the Woods’
Through Jan. 8
The Kennedy Center
Tickets start at $49-175
Typically musical director Evan Rees finds his next job through referral, but for the national tour of Fiasco Theater’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” he was required to audition.
In this wildly reinvented production, in which the small cast also plays instruments and the musical director/pianist is on stage throughout the entire show, directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld needed to see how Rees worked with actors before offering a contract.
“This isn’t for everyone,” says Rees, 25, who spent three months with the show in London before kicking off the American national tour earlier this year. Being on stage throughout the show and being a part of the story telling forces him to use new concentration muscles, he says.
“When you’re a conductor or pianist, you’re usually in the pit half paying attention to dialogue, waiting to hear the warning cue. You play, and then you check your email. Here I’m one of a small group of people onstage. I feel so much more connected to the material. I even have a couple lines — little narration things. This is part of why it’s so special and firmly an ensemble piece.”
Featuring a score by Sondheim (“Agony,” “Stay with Me,” “On the Steps of the Palace,”) and book by James Lapine, “Into the Woods” blends the fairytales Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel with an original story of a childless baker and his wife who long to shake a curse and have children. Act one focuses on the characters’ tales and in act two, the characters’ wishes come true and not always happily so.
Fiasco’s “Into the Woods” is stripped of all fairytale flourishes, so don’t go expecting to find castles, thatch-rooved cottages and an eerie dark forest. Rees describes the set as an exploded piano and the props and costumes appear culled from great-grandmother’s attic — Jack’s golden-egg-laying hen is a feather duster for instance. The production invites the audience to use its imagination and become part of the show’s journey. It’s for this reason that “No One is Alone,” the closing number considered a little syrupy in some productions, works so well here, says Rees.
While earning a degree in music theory and composition at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Rees (who grew up outside of Boston) worked part-time as accompanist for the school’s main stage where he realized theater would be his profession. After graduation he moved to New York and began his career in earnest. Rees’ bio boasts Broadway’s “The Visit” starring Chita Rivera and numerous tours. “Touring involves long separations from home. When I’m in doubt about doing the next tour, my boyfriend encourages me to take it. He’s an artist and understands that it’s part of the job,” Rees says.
Rees was introduced to Sondheim at 14 when his parents took the family to see the Broadway production of director John Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd,” another radically pared-down Sondheim revival. “To prepare for the show, my dad came home with a CD of the show’s score. I was heavy into classical piano at the time, but Sondheim’s work spoke to me on levels. I dove in head first and went for it. And that was the beginning of a lifelong fascination for me.”
Sondheim’s music is legendarily tough both to play and sing. Rees agrees, but says, “’Into the Woods’ is probably his most accessible work, and when you’re doing Sondheim with people who really know how to act — which is one of the privileges of being a part of this Fiasco production — and know how to mine the material for what makes it tick, it’s easier to perform than you might think.”