Theater Latté Da’s “Into the Woods” excels in many ways, but one is apparent before the show even starts: perhaps the best use ever of unlikely materials in a scenic design. The first thing to meet the eyes of audiences filing into the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis is a fantastical forest of trees molded entirely out of snow fencing. It’s just the first salvo in an evening filled with inventiveness.
Kate Sutton-Johnson’s ingeniously simple forest set is enhanced by Benjamin Olsen’s clever props (including a pail and cart that signify a cow, and a hen fashioned out of a baseball glove) and Barry Browning’s ethereal lighting design. Together they create a makeshift magic that provides a perfect setting for the fairy-tale mashup that is “Into the Woods.”
James Lapine’s book weaves four well-known fairy tales — “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” — around the domestic drama of a baker and his wife who are desperately hoping to have a child. Ten actors, accompanied by three onstage musicians, bring a host of characters to life as they launch a quest to overturn a curse and explore what transpires after these tales’ “happily ever after” endings.
Director Peter Rothstein has assembled a solid cast, beginning with Greta Oglesby’s commanding turn as the Witch. She capably conjures both the bitter crone and the preening diva aspects of her character, while bringing magnificent voice to the nuances of Sondheim’s complex lyrics in both the poignant “Stay With Me” and her sinister exit number, “Last Midnight.”
Other standouts include Shinah Brashears as an impudent, precocious and wonderfully funny Little Red, Britta Ollmann as a thoughtful Cinderella and David Darrow playing both the Baker and Rapunzel’s Prince. Peter Middlecamp does yeoman triple duty as the Wolf, Cinderella’s Stepmother and Cinderella’s Prince, bringing the perfect touch of cavalier insouciance to the latter role. The two renditions of “Agony” that he and Darrow deliver as they ponder their love lives provide some of the evening’s most hilarious moments.
Indeed, there’s not a weak performance in this ensemble and Jason Hansen’s crisp musical direction ably guides them through the intricacies of Sondheim’s melodies and lyrics. It’s unfortunate that these solid singers are coupled with a less than adequate sound system that often lends a distracting and muffling hollowness to their work.
That problem aside, this is a compelling production of “Into the Woods” that entertains through scenic economy and sheer inventiveness, while never forgetting that simple, straightforward storytelling is at the heart of its complicated magic.