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.
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 flair by Becky Bartlett) makes a play for the slipper worn by Cinderella (soprano Jessica Schaub), and when Shannon Benil's snippy Little Red Riding Hood takes on the Wolf, sung 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.
Tara Cariaso's Witch is the most affecting presence on the stage when disaster strikes in Act II, and her "Lament" (left me close to tears.
When David Gregory's Baker in Act I 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.
Kudos go to Buddy Pease, who excelled as simple-minded, mischievous Jack and to Robin Chapin, who sets a fine tone as the show's narrator.
Merely Players' production of "Into the Woods" continues at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 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. Information and reservations: 410-636-6597.