I'm not sure there's a tougher musical to bring off these days than Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's bittersweet take on the not-so-happily-ever-after endings of the classic fairy tales we thought we knew.
The score's rhythmic demands are relentless, and while Sondheim's spiky melodies are singable to a fault, they can be deucedly hard for performers to pull out of the air.
Most difficult is the balance that must be struck between the ups of Act I and the downs of Act II, when Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and the rest are in for some industrial-strength doses of reality.
Merely Players, a community theater ensemble active in northern Anne Arundel County, has done an excellent job of melding these demanding and divergent strands into a vivid and moving interpretation of Sondheim's piece. While there are occasional matters of character, pitch and vocal timbre to question, there can be no doubting the overall energy, accuracy and pacing of director Wayne Shipley's production, or the strength with which the musical's message hits home, courtesy of an incandescent second act.
Sondheim's theme - that essential lessons are learned when our connectedness helps us conquer fears of what's lurking out there in the woods - comes through loud and clear.
Interaction is key in this show, so the best moments come as the strong, sensible Baker's Wife (played with commendable flair by Becky Bartlett) makes a play for the slipper worn by Cinderella (lovely soprano Jessica Schaub), and when Shannon Benil's snippy Little Red Riding Hood takes on the Wolf, sung with gluttonous flair by Neil Ewachiw.
Ewachiw also assumes the spotlight as Cinderella's prissy, self-absorbed Prince; the "Agony" duet he shares with his royal brother, played hilariously by Dustin Cross (another first-class baritone), is the comic highlight of the show.
The characters who stumble a bit in Act I are also the ones who are most instrumental in bringing the show to a stunning conclusion.
Tara Cariaso gets so into her witches' brogue early on that her clever lyrics all but disappear. But she's the most affecting presence on the stage when disaster strikes in Act II, and her "Lament" (Careful the things you say, children will listen) left me close to tears.
I'd have liked more energy - especially in facial expressions - from David Gregory's Baker in Act I, but when he confronts his mysterious father on the verge of his own impending fatherhood, then shoulders his burden in the midst of personal tragedy, he's speaking for all of us and with real authority. He's wonderful.
Benil's Little Red Riding Hood may have had some pitch problems at the outset, but when she willed the spoiled child to mature, the metamorphosis had commendable dignity and grace.
Kudos go to young Buddy Pease of the Baltimore School for the Arts, who excelled from start to finish as simple-minded, mischievous Jack. They also go to Robin Chapin, who sets a fine tone as the show's narrator, and to pianist Jason Brown, who keeps the complex score on an even keel.
From evocative sets to hilarious mechanical cows, a Wayne Shipley production can be counted on to evince deft technical touches and a respectful love for the magic of the stage.
Merely Players' production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park. A youth cast presents a matinee performance of the show on Saturday at 3 p.m. For information and reservations, call 410-636-6597.