Fairy tales are hot. It's not just six-year-olds driving the success of Frozen. Once Upon a Time continues to draw audiences on ABC, while Bill Willingham's Fables is ending a 13-year run as one of the most intriguing comic books on the market.
Since its premiere in 1987, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have tapped into this intrigue with Into the Woods. It's become a musical staple, recently accompanied by a film version. Now Theatre Latte Da presents a bright, engaging production that is marred only by the sometimes distorted sound of the Ritz Theater.
Lapine's book brings Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack the Giant Killer all to the same kingdom. Their fates are centered on the baker and his wife, who hope to break a curse placed on their home. When it's finally lifted, our heroes are headed for happily ever after.
But that's only half the story.
The real brilliance — beyond Sondheim's gorgeous music and tongue-twisting lyrics — comes as Act Two brings the darkness of ever after. Like real people, none of the characters are completely satisfied with their new lives. That sense of ennui turns to terror when the wife of the giant Jack killed comes looking for revenge. By the end, many of the fairy tale heroes have died or abandoned the kingdom, leaving the survivors to build a more honest ever after.
David Darrow and Kate Beahen are the show's backbone as the baker and his wife. The couple's story adds sadness and an edge. When their long-anticipated baby arrives and doesn't provide a fix, their relationship goes from lovey-dovey to angry.
The most outsized character in a play loaded with not-so-valiant princes and maidens-turned-princesses is the Witch who placed a curse on the couple's home. Director Peter Rothstein made a perfect choice with Greta Oglesby. She can keep your attention with a hard look or simply by pointing one of her long, dirty fingernails. Oglesby's command keeps the character vital, even after she loses her magic powers.
She also has the pipes for Sondheim. The composer's deceptive music and lyrics sound simple, but they're imbedded with complex harmonies and intricate wordplay. Into the Woods is American musical theater at its purest, without the pop touches of an Andrew Lloyd Webber show.
The songs often play under the surface until you can't ignore them anymore, such as the Witch's epic "Final Midnight." Oglesby hits each note like a sinister soul singer.
The key trouble — one that hopefully can be smoothed out during the run — is the sound. The amplification and the Ritz's hard, concrete walls make a score known for its elegance come out harsh and far too sharp. The sound did improve throughout opening night, and it would be a shame for such a fixable flaw to continue to mar such a delightful, delicate, and engaging production.
IF YOU GO:
Into the Woods The Ritz Theater 345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sundays $31-$45 Through March 29