Ingenuity cleverly substitutes for spectacle in Princeton Summer Theater’s season-opening production of “Into the Woods.” Stephen Sondheim’s twist on fairy tales is a big, ambitious work, but the cast and crew behind this version have turned it into an intimate, economic, and overall entertaining show on stage at the Hamilton Murray Theater through Sunday, July 3.
It’s the kind of production that embraces its limitations, using a wooden barricade as a none-too convincing cow and a ladder to represent Rapunzel’s tower. It all works because director Jed Peterson keeps the story moving and the cast handles Sondheim’s tricky score with aplomb, at least in the first act.
James Lapine’s book takes the happily ever after out of fairy tales. The first act focuses largely on the baker (David Bevis) and the baker’s wife (Sarah Elizabeth Grace), who desperately want a child but can’t because of a curse placed on the baker’s family by a witch (Abigail Sparrow) because the baker’s father stole vegetables from the witch’s garden. The witch also took the baker’s sister; her name is Rapunzel (Kerilyn Acer) and she lives in a tower, isolated from the world.
The witch will lift the curse on the baker if they can get her four things: A cow white as milk, a cape red as blood, hair yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold. This leads to encounters with characters like Jack (of beanstalk fame, played by Jesse Derron Gold), Little Red Ridinghood (Eva Casey), Cinderella (Melissa Fults), and the aforementioned Rapunzel.
The first act is a joy, as the plot builds and life gets more complicated for all the characters. It’s also when the cast shines. Sparrow proves early on that the score is in good hands as she sings the witch’s parade of lines about the thievery of her garden (“Rooting through my rutabaga/Raiding my arugula and/Ripping up my rampion”) quick as lightning without missing a beat. In fact, there’s nary a verbal misstep from anyone in the cast throughout the night.
The cast also does a fine job of relating the emotions and dreams of these characters. Gold is an earnest Jack who loves his white cow, and Fults displays all the yearning you’d want from a Cinderella.
Another fine moment comes with “Agony,” the duet between Nicholas Genta and Christopher J. Beard, who play the princes to Rapunzel and Cinderella. Genta’s looks resemble Brad Pitt, and he plays the fairy tale prince role perfectly, a cocky, royal grin never leaving his face. “Agony!” he sings, “Far more painful than yours/When you know she would go with you/If there only were doors.”
Other fine performances come from Casey as Little Red Ridinghood who, after being eaten by the Wolf and set free, becomes a knife-wielding tough girl. Beard pulls double duty as the Wolf, wearing furry gloves, one of those plastic noses with a rubber band, and a Justin Bieber-like haircut. The duet between the Wolf and Ridinghood, “Hello Little Girl,” is a highlight.
As the narrator, James Mears seems to be paying tribute to the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” dressed in a bow tie, sweater vest, and blazer. He opens the show with the obligatory announcement about cell phones in a very funny manner.
The show’s conceit is that all of these characters’ fairy tale problems are solved by the end of Act 1, only for real life to intrude in Act 2. Sure Cinderella marries Prince Charming, but he turns out to be an adulterer. The Baker and his wife have their baby, then bicker over who should care for it. And Jack slays the giant, only to spur on his vengeance-seeking wife (who is unseen and voiced by Jenell Manzi).
It all represents having to leave childhood behind, confronting our fears of adulthood, and dealing with life, but once you get past the clever symbolism, the story falls into a rut as the characters band together to conquer the giant’s wife. The success of the second act hinges on the singing of its ballads, which require big, soaring voices, and while the cast members all have fine singing voices, they don’t wow you. After an inspiring moment that introduces the widowed giantess, the evening lumbers to its conclusion.
The set is simple, mostly black platforms and an eight-piece orchestra, visible on the stage and also dressed in black. All of the musicians play wonderfully under the guidance of musical director Jared Judge. The woods consist of white birch trees, which stand out against the black and are placed throughout the stage.
Those ballads at the end aside, Peterson and his cast are up the Sondheim challenge. They keep the rather complicated story clear, define the characters well, and are sure to have audiences of all ages laughing and emotionally touched. “Stay a child while you can be a child/With me,” Rapunzel’s mother sings to her, proving that even a witch has a heart.
“Into the Woods,” through Sunday, July 3, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University Campus. Musical comedy about fairy tale characters dealing with real problems. $20 to $25. 877-238-5596 or www.pst2011.org