These days, you can't toss a heavily bearded dwarf without hitting a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, but when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine sat down in the early 1980s to merge and twist the tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel it was definitely a fresh idea.
That freshness has stuck with the show over the past three decades, even as it has become one of the most popular of Sondheim's works, and it's clearly evident in Mu Performing Arts' clever and handsome production at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
Mu employs an all-Asian-American cast for its production, and it shifts the action from a vaguely European setting to an Asian one, with traditional costumes from across the continent and occasional touches, such as dances and movement based on different theatrical traditions, that add more layers to the story.
The plot and the music, however, remain exactly the same. The four classic fairy tales are linked by a creation of Sondheim and Lapine's: A baker and his wife who are living under a curse from the witch next door. The curse prevents the pair from having children, and the only way to lift it is to collect signature items from the other four tales: Jack's cow, Red's cape, Rapunzel's hair, and Cinderella's other slipper.
Apart from providing a way to mix the tales together, the "woods" allow Sondheim and Lapine a chance to explore the nature of these stories and the universal themes of friendship, love, and growing up.
That becomes clear in the second act. At the end of the first half, everything is right: Cinderella and Rapunzel have their princes; Jack and his mother are rich after eliminating the giant; Red has been saved from the wolf; and the Bakers have lifted the curse and are on their way to parenthood.
Yet all their chickens come home to roost in the second act, as the giant's understandably aggrieved wife seeks vengeance. The fairy-tale happiness is gone as characters begin to drop left and right, and tough decisions need to be made. That provides a bedrock for some typically clever Sondheim lyrics that grow to have deeper meanings by the end of the play.
The company presents strong performances from top to bottom, led by Randy Reyes and Sheena Janson as the baker and the baker's wife. They are really modern-day folks dropped into a fantasy environment, full of doubt and conflicts that are at first out of place amid the outsized events of the other stories, and then the main light of maturity in an increasingly dark world. Both actors embrace these complexities, crafting performances that are at turns funny, touching, and heartbreaking.
There are three key fairy-tale characters. As Cinderella, Sara Ochs gives us a character with a lot of flaws underneath the beauty, such as a constant wanderlust that never leaves her satisfied, even in the palace with her beloved prince. Maxwell Chonk Thao gets a different challenge with Jack, as he has to play a character who is pretty dim — remember, he trades a cow for a handful of beans — but also grows up through the show. Thao's wide-eyed interpretation takes on added depth by the end of the play, as his greed affects every inhabitant of the kingdom.
As the Witch, Katie Bradley gets several of the show's signature songs, including the first act's "Stay With Me" and the second-act showstopper "Final Midnight." Bradley gives us a character who is more than just a baddie, however. There are a lot of layers here, and Bradley has so much to play with that the stage nearly ignites during her scenes.
Director Rick Shiomi, music director Denise Prosek, and the production team craft a beautiful production that pulls out the humor and heart of the classic musical. Special credit goes to costume designer Paula Lee, who has built beautiful traditional clothing for the company to wear, which accents not just the Asian setting but the fairy-tale quality of the entire production.