Kansas City Repertory Theatre kicks off its season with an impeccably staged production of "Into the Woods," the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical that explores the deeper significance of the fairytales we grew up with.
Director Moises Kaufman has assembled a first-rate cast and an exceptional design team to find new life in a show that ambitiously seeks the inherent psychological meaning of familiar fables.
Big bad wolves, handsome young princes, witches, maidens and giant-killers aren't just characters in children's stories. In this show they're symbols that say something about the human condition.
The first act tells the story of a childless baker and his wife, who seek to lift a curse so they can have children. Their quest for certain items prescribed by a witch brings them into contact with Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack (of beanstalk fame). The pre-intermission section is virtually a self-contained narrative rich in satire and wit.
The clever fun of the first act gives way to a bleak second half in which characters' achieved happiness proves illusory. They become rootless refugees, wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape.
As if to compensate for pulling the audience to the brink of the existential abyss, Sondheim and Lapine end the proceedings on a note of optimism that seems rather forced. This is a longstanding complaint about the 1986 show and it's still valid.
That said, the Rep has brought us the first fully staged professional production of "Into the Woods" in the city's history and in many ways it's a feast for the senses. The score includes some of Sondheim's best songs and Kaufman's mix of local and out-of-town actors (including several Broadway veterans) is close to ideal.
Standouts among the principals are Michele Ragusa, who as the Witch undergoes an extraordinary physical transformation and demonstrates a refined comic sensibility; the charismatic Euan Morton, whose Narrator suggests both Shakespeare's Puck and the Greek god Pan; and Lauren Worsham, who delivers a delightful physical performance (including pratfalls) as Cinderella in Act 1 and delivers a compassionate, human version of the same character in Act 2.
Dana Steingold is highly amusing as the sarcastic Little Red Riding Hood, a Lolita-like character who finds the Wolf less threatening than attractive; Tina Stafford demonstrates impressive versatility in multiple roles (Granny and both Cinderella's and Jack's mothers); and Claybourne Elder scores with two distinct performances as the Wolf and as Cinderella's Prince.
Compared with the other characters populating the stage, the Baker and his Wife are rather pale, but that's no reflection on the skill of Zachary Prince and Brynn O'Malley.
Among the local actors, all of whom easily hold their own with their imported colleagues; Katie Kalahurka and Katie Karel are a riot as Florinda and Lucinda, Cinderella's sisters, as is Patrick DuLaney as the officious Steward. KC Comeaux as Jack, Brandon Sollenberger as Rapunzel's Prince, Kip Niven as the Mysterious Man and the ethereal Lauren Braton as Rapunzel all make strong impressions.
Costume designer Clint Ramos, whose vision for the show is quirky and frequently spectacular, makes a vital contribution. And scenic designer Narelle Sissons' deep woods in Act 1 are as ominous and intoxicating as the real thing
What you get with this production is a Broadway-caliber show. The material can be frustrating, but I can't recall another musical at the Rep or any other theater in town that was as impressively executed. In terms of sheer professionalism, this one is in a class by itself.
"Into the Woods"The runs through Oct. 4 at the UMKC Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.