REVIEW: A stellar cast animates the fractured fairy tales within this familiar Sondheim musical.
After mounting wonderfully charming productions of "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Flower Drum Song" in the past two years, Mu Performing Arts has kicked up the difficulty factor with its annual summer musical. Director Rick Shiomi tests his talented ensemble with "Into the Woods," the labyrinthine fairy-tale mash-up from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Shiomi and his designers use Asian trappings for these familiar European folk stories, and narrator Jeannie Lander's tone immediately proclaims a production that rings with authenticity.
The performers are more than up for the challenge. Randy Reyes brings more authority and depth to his singing voice than ever; Sheena Janson's deadpan style is spot-on; Katie Bradley is exceptional as a witch, and newcomer Maxwell Chonk Thao imbues Jack (of Beanstalk fame) with great empathy. Sara Ochs is more fragile as Cinderella.
In the first act, Reyes and Janson portray a baker and his wife, childless because of the witch's curse. They set off to gather charms to break the spell. Jack's cow, Little Red Riding Hood's cape, a lock of Rapunzel's hair and Cinderella's slipper are the targets. Shiomi's production, driven by Denise Prosek's musical acumen, is vigorously paced, with sharp and exact rhythms hitting every syllable of Sondheim's lyrics.
Suzie Juul's "Little Red" has sass and self-satisfaction -- up to the point where she's eaten by the wolf and reflects on her plight in "I Know Things Now." Thao is tender and funny in "Giants in the Sky," and the princes (Alex Galick and Eric Sharp) who are chasing Cinderella and Rapunzel nicely fill the delicate melodies of "Agony."
It is telling that "Into the Woods" can be licensed as a one-act. Indeed, after 90 minutes, the mixed tales have wended through comic and tender moments to their usual happy endings. Mu is producing the full two-act version, in which Sondheim and Lapine have more to say about consequences and the darker side of "life ever after." The giant's wife, deceived by Jack earlier, is back with a vengeance. People are dying, homes are being wrecked. The princes, so happy with Cinderella and Rapunzel in the pursuit, have strayed now with other women. Even the witch, who is transformed into a beauty, is cranky because she's lost her powers.
Sondheim's music keeps this act afloat. Janson's "Moments in the Woods" and Bradley's "Lament" about children illustrate how good these singers are. But as with "Sundays in the Park With George," Sondheim and Lapine have tacked on a redundant act that bogs things down dramatically.
That is the creators' issue, though. Shiomi and his cast never flag in executing the material. "Into the Woods" is another milestone for a company still on the rise.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299