Why is it that children, innocent wide-eyed Hummel figurines that they appear, are so enthralled by grisly Grimms' fairy tales? The stories spun by those Teutonic brothers are full of death, mutilation, betrayal, and abandonment. Perhaps youngsters develop a hardy acceptance of life's downside after sitting in their own poop for their first two years.
Whatever the reason, the Grimms maintain a death grip on our imaginations. That's why Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine created Into the Woods, the psychologically scattershot, musical retelling of well-known tales such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel. Lakeland Theatre is now mounting a handsome production of Into the Woods, directed by Martin Friedman, that features a gorgeous set (a major bow to designer Keith Nagy) and soaring singing voices. Unfortunately, there are a couple of glaring weaknesses that, when added to the numbing three-hour length of the often-fragmented show, lead more to exhaustion than exhilaration.
The plot stitches together the above-mentioned tales when a witch sends a childless couple, the Baker and his wife, off on a scavenger hunt to the evil-laden and highly metaphorical forest. If the hunt succeeds, the couple will be fertile, and the cursed witch will become fabulous again. Once in the woods, all the stories collide, sometimes humorously and frequently confusingly, until the upbeat Act One ending. Then comes the dour twist, as Act Two shines a harsh, bar-closing light of reality on the fairy-tale premises. This inspired concept (thanks for axing the beanstalk, Jack, but what the hell do we do with the corpse of a giant in our backyard?) is undercut by obsessive moralizing and an unnecessary solo or two.
Sondheim's complex score is capably handled by the orchestra, led by Marc Baker, and by standout singers: Toni Cervino (Cinderella), Sandra Emerick (Baker's Wife), Elizabeth Blakeslee (Cinderella's Stepmother), and young Alex Wyse as Jack. Maryann Nagel is more amusing than terrifying as the witch and undergoes a dazzling transformation into a fairy-tale spokesmodel. Also, Donnie Long and Ryan Bergeron generate chuckles as the two princes who pursue Cinderella and Rapunzel.
However, the production is dented by a couple of uninspired performances in central roles. Rumpled Doug Farren plays the Narrator as if he had been wandering backstage and was accidentally pushed into the lights. His lack of stage or vocal presence saps the play's energy. And as the Baker, Paul Floriano seems as if he's gazing at himself in an unseen, middle-distance mirror to make sure he doesn't muss his hair, missing much of his character's humor.
It's too bad that the sum of these parts doesn't quite add up, since there are inspired comic moments. For instance, the rakish Wolf chatting up Red Riding Hood as he plans her demise: "There is no possible way to describe what you feel when you're talking to your meal." Ultimately, after this long and fitfully entertaining evening, empty is how we feel.