PRINCETON - "Is this professional or volunteer?" asked one of the younger audience members at Into the Woods, now playing at the McCarter Theatre Center in a production by the Fiasco Theater. Good question.
Before the show began on Saturday afternoon, the scrupulously casual actors loitered around the stage, greeting friends in the audience, slowly coalescing into the intricate web of fairy tales retold by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine with a wisdom that grows deeper with repeated exposure.
With its makeshift look and low-tech manner, the Fiasco production relies almost exclusively on the theatrical wiles of the acting, singing, and directing, and has enough revelatory moments to be worth a drive to Princeton. But the production isn't quite as charming as it thinks it is.
An ensemble theater that grew out of Brown University's Trinity Rep MFA acting program, Fiasco has enjoyed success with problematic plays such as Cymbeline. Here, it follows a trend toward stripped-down Sondheim with plainclothes actors who accompany each other on guitar, toy piano, etc.
In effect, Into the Woods was staged on the sets for Our Town. A ladder stood in for a castle tower. Stage rigging suggested the witch's tangled anguish in the late-Act II song "The Last Midnight."
Understandably, not all 18 characters were clearly differentiated. Most of them are going to great lengths to get what they want, and they succeed. Cinderella and Rapunzel get their princes. Jack climbs a beanstalk to find a golden harp. Then a vengeful giant in Act II brings everybody back to something vastly different: what they need.
You know the production works when you feel the trauma of that journey, when the oft-criticized Act II feels stronger than Act I, and when "The Last Midnight" is the most powerful moment in the show.
Ultimately, it's the character portraits that sell the show. Some were works in progress (Emily Young's Red Ridinghood). But Jessie Austrian (the Baker's Wife) and Jennifer Mudge (the Witch) anchored the show with charismatic solidity. And Patrick Mulryan made Jack's "Giants in the Sky" song Shakespearean in its portrait of inner transformation.
However, much distracting silliness crept in. Andy Grotelueschen and Noah Brody (who codirected the show with Ben Steinfeld) had a grand time playing the two princes plus the evil stepsisters in drag, but bludgeoned their punch lines to death and seemed so pleased with their cleverness that they couldn't stay in character. Laughs were cheap. Even "volunteers" know better.
Through June 9 at the McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets: $20-$93.80. Information: 609-258-2787 or www.mcarter.org EndText