'Into the Woods'

Jeffry Denman stars in a new production of "Into The Woods" at Center Stage. (Richard Anderson, Baltimore Sun / March 11, 2012)

Fairy tales seem like so much fun until you start paying attention. All that violence and vengeance, the spookiness, illusion, deceit.

"And ah, the woods," as Stephen Sondheim writes in his latest book. "The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we have our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed."

In one of his most imaginative contributions to the Broadway musical, Sondheim invites audiences to step "Into the Woods," where a mash-up of fairy tales, tribulations and discoveries await characters and audiences alike.

This multilayered work from 1987 emerges with its theatrical and comical qualities shining nicely in a straightforward revival at Center Stage, a co-production with the Westport Country Playhouse. Musically, there are some disappointments, but the production's other strengths compensate considerably.

The action flows on an unfussy stage designed by Allen Moyer, who conjures up a vintage illustrated children's book writ large. A cute toy theater provides an extra prop and an extra perspective, mirroring the big change the set undergoes between acts.

That big change, of course, is the whole point of the musical, which has a deft book by James Lapine to match Sondheim's finely tuned lyrics. The creators wanted to expose not just the underside of beloved tales — and we're talking the Grimm-er variety here, not the Disney-fied — but also the unsettling way life has of pecking at us just when we are so sure of happiness ever after.

Both sides of this coin are effectively examined in this production, directed with a steady hand by Mark Lamos.

The cast could use a stronger center. "Into the Woods" largely revolves around the Witch, a role that needs a more commanding presence and more textured voice than Lauren Kennedy summons.

Although Jenny Latimer lands a little short of pitch in her vocal numbers, her portrayal of Cinderella is on the mark, affectingly conveying the shift from wide-eyed to truly open-eyed. Nikka Graff Lanzarone and Eleni Delopoulos as Cinderella's stepsisters are a hoot, and Alma Cuervo makes a formidable stepmother (she's also the voice of the Giant).

The characters from a well-known lupine tale provide some of the best laughs. Dana Steingold nearly steals the whole show as Little Red Ridinghood, with delicious comic timing and a touch of jaded valley girl in her voice. Nik Walker's awesome-dude impersonation of the Wolf is only surpassed by what he does in his other role, the deadpan, clueless Cinderella's Prince, "raised to be charming, not sincere."

In that noble guise, the supple-voiced Walker offers particularly shining work with another vibrant performer, Robert Lenzi, as Rapunzel's Prince, in "Agony," one of Sondheim's most memorable fusions of verbal and melodic cleverness.

Justin Scott Brown is a charmer as the dull-witted, tender-hearted Jack, whose curiosity about a beanstalk causes so much grief. Cheryl Stern does a vivid job as Jack's Mother.

Jeremy Lawrence brings abundant color and drollery to the role of the Mysterious Man. Britney Coleman leaves a modest mark as Rapunzel and Cinderella's Mother.

The show's moral compass, and contemporary reference points for audiences, derive from a couple Lapine invented, the Baker and his wife, who are anxious for a child and a world with clearer, safer paths. Erik Liberman is a most likable Baker, but Danielle Ferland goes much farther with her portrayal of the wife.

Ferland's performance, perhaps the most impressive of the production, is filled with telling details, funny and serious, and enriched by a warm, unassuming voice that gets inside a lyric. She makes the most of her second act scene with Walker, when the prince pauses for a little what-happens-in-the-woods-stays-in-the-woods fling.

Watching over all is Jeffry Denman, who suavely fills our the role of the Narrator.

Although there is only so much room in the miniscule pit at Center Stage, it would be great to have more musicians to fill out the score. The fine seven-piece ensemble, led from the keyboard by Wayne Barker, often leaves the harmonies sounding thin and faint.

The production, nicely costumed by Candice Donnelly and lit by Robert Wierzel, provides a welcome opportunity to savor a musical that is at once simple and complex, daft and serious.

It's useful to be reminded that "there are always wolves," that "people make mistakes, holding to their own, thinking they're alone" — but that, somehow, there's a way out of the deepest woods and back toward the light.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Into the Woods" continues through April 15 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 to $60. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.

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