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Stripped-down staging brings clever moments in this long, long journey ‘Into the Woods’

Anthony Chatmon II is the Wolf and Lisa Helmi Johanson is Little Red Ridinghood in Fiasco Theater’s production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s "Into the Woods" at the Ahmanson Theatre. (Joan Marcus)

The trees are ropes resembling piano strings. The birds are folded sheets of stationery. The princes ride on stick horses. And the wolf stalking Little Red Ridinghood is mounted like a hunting trophy.

Fiasco Theater’s frisky “Into the Woods,” which opened on Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, is as economical a rendering of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical as it is an imaginative one. A tight budget has set the creative juices flowing. The eager-to-please production overstays its welcome, but its shoestrings delights are manifold.

Originally produced by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center in 2013, this adventurous take on a popular if problematic show combines the fluid precision of a professional troupe with the gleeful insouciance of an amateur theatrical company. The score may be diminished by an orchestra downsized to just a few instruments, but the production makes up in playfulness what it lacks in cascading sound.

No theater has the resources to compete with the visual splendor of Rob Marshall’s 2014 film version of “Into the Woods.” Fiasco’s pared-down approach, while not as dramatically assured as John Doyle’s minimalist Sondheim reinterpretations, exposes the simple means by which scenic magic can be achieved.

The bare-bones sets by Derek McLane never let us forget that this trip into the woods is taking place inside a theater. A ladder, a dress dummy and a speaking trumpet are all that’s needed to bring the most unruly fantasy elements to life.

Plucked from tales by the Brothers Grimm, the characters of “Into the Woods” (which had its premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986) have all been given neurotic makeovers by Sondheim and Lapine. Little Red Ridinghood has a sour temper and a taste for wine. Beanstalk-climbing Jack, always a bit of a kleptomaniac, has Oedipal issues and a lurid stare.

Imagine a live-action Disney film transformed into an Upper West Side group therapy session and you’ll have a pretty good sense of this colorful crew. The musical, a modern morality tale, is divided into two acts. The first half depicts the characters in desperate pursuit of their desires; the second half deals with the queasy fallout of fulfillment.

Fiasco’s 10-person acting ensemble (not counting onstage music director-pianist-and-pinch-player Evan Rees) gamely handles the army of roles. The cast’s breathless brio is unflagging, though there may be moments when you wish directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld had prepared better flowcharts. The doubling and tripling can get dizzying. The company, to its credit, comically exploits the vertigo.

Darick Pead, who plays Jack’s cow, Milky White, unabashedly retains a bovine quality when playing his other roles. Patrick Mulryan is so dopily convincing as Jack that when he transforms into Steward, the Prince’s right-hand man, the character suffers the loss of a few IQ points.

Having the same actress (Lisa Helmi Johanson) portray Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel might seem logistically ludicrous. But an endless braid of yarn (serving as Rapunzel’s “yellow as corn” hair) creates a viable solution that earns a few silly laughs.

When Anthony Chatmon II switches between Cinderella’s Prince to Cinderella’s nasty sister Lucinda in the scene in which the Prince hunts down the foot that fits the shimmering slipper, the actor has no choice but to winkingly acknowledge the nuttiness. What else can he do? He also plays Wolf (carting around the hunting trophy) — and tells the audience at the top of the show to turn off their cellphones.

The ensemble doesn’t boast a Bernadette Peters or a Joanna Gleason (the Witch and Baker’s Wife in the musical’s original Broadway outing). Teamwork is the star here, which is another way of saying that collective verve substitutes for transcendence.

That isn’t always a satisfying trade-off. But Stephanie Umoh’s Witch grows in stature after she loses the old crone drag and sings — first somberly, then menacingly — about the many disasters raining down on everyone in the unhappily-ever-after second act. Laurie Veldheer’s Cinderella has an unforced sweetness that comes into poignant focus in the show’s most stirring number, “No One Is Alone.” (Don’t forget to bring a handkerchief.)

Evan Harrington’s Baker and Eleasha Gamble’s Baker’s Wife, the characters who are our modern urban counterparts, don’t make much of an impression until late in the game. But redemption comes through song — “Moments in the Woods” for Baker’s Wife and “No More” for Baker. (The most emotionally resonant songs are saved until after intermission, somewhat easing the toll of this marathon.)

I first encountered Fiasco’s “Into the Woods” in an outdoor production at the Old Globe in 2014 that featured an almost entirely different cast. I’m happy to report that the singing is stronger at the Ahmanson, though the main obstacle I had with the production remains.

The music ought to feed the musical’s momentum, but the orchestral streamlining exacerbates the sluggishness of Lapine’s overwritten book and the repetitive emphasis of some of Sondheim’s lyrics. When the finale comes nearly three exhausting hours into the show and the cast plaintively intones, “Careful the wishes you make/Wishes are children,” you might find yourself thinking very loudly, “I get it already!”

“Into the Woods” could use a reduction not just of scenic froufrou but of narrative bloat. Fiasco’s springy theatricality is refreshing, but next time I venture into these woods I’m bringing a sleeping bag.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Into the Woods’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends May 14 (call for exceptions)

Tickets: $25-$125 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hour and 50 minutes, including intermission.

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