"Into the Woods" -- ★ ★ ★
The Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical "Into the Woods" says something about the confidence the Arlington Heights theater has in its artists.
To an extent, that confidence is well-placed in director Robin M. Hughes' competent production, which features solid ensemble singing and able performances from its principals, including understudy Marissa Williams, who stepped admirably into the role of Cinderella on opening night.
However, not all the actors are up to the challenges Sondheim's score poses. Lyrics were sometimes difficult to decipher, especially during the first act when enthusiastic playing by music director Ken McMullen's eight-piece orchestra threatened to overwhelm the singers.
Weaving together Grimm Brothers stories, "Into the Woods" examines the knotty reality that unfolds once the fairy tale concludes. In a sense, it's a coming-of-age tale about characters coping when their lives -- rife with betrayal, violence and loss -- fail to live up to expectations.
But the musical is more than that. It's also a provocative examination of familial relationships: unfaithful lovers, unfulfilled spouses, flawed parents and headstrong children.
The story centers on a Baker (Ryan Stajmiger) and his Wife (Kate Staiger), whose desire for a child leads them to make a deal with their neighbor the Witch (Kelsey Burd, whose powerful singing is among the show's assets). If the couple obtains a milk-white cow, a blood-red cape, hair the color of corn and a slipper pure as gold, the Witch will remove the curse she placed on the family decades earlier that prevented the Baker from having children.
Into the woods they go, in search of the items. Also making his way through the woods is the genial but dim Jack (an ingenuous, expressive Ethan Warren), whose mother (Ana Maria Alvarez) ordered him to sell their cow at market.
In another part of the forest, Red Riding Hood (the dynamic, determined Anna Segatti) is accosted by a lascivious wolf (Alexander Johnson), while Cinderella (Williams) flees the prince (also played by Johnson), whose eye she caught at the festival.
Meanwhile, the Witch visits her adopted daughter Rapunzel (the sweet-voiced Kim Green), locked in a tower for her own protection. Unbeknown to the witch, Rapunzel has met a prince of her own (Benjamin Klein) and is plotting her escape.
Act one concludes happily for all. Act two is a different story. Literally.
The mood darkens. Gone are the brightly hued, anachronistic gowns with their lace flounces and ribbons by costume designer Rachel S. Parent (who also created the chillingly fanciful masks for the Witch and the Wolf). The first act finery is replaced by simpler, more contemporary apparel, confirming the fantasy is over.
Adam Liston's set -- dark and minimalist to begin with -- becomes more foreboding. The woods -- which represent a challenge to be met, a fear to overcome, a trial to complete -- are even more fraught with danger. In this new reality, a journey into the woods means risking one's life.
The second act improves upon the first in content and execution. The staging and performances feel more assured, the vocals and instrumentals more complementary. Remaining consistent are the performances by Hughes' principals, especially Staiger, Stajmiger and Williams.
In this tale of fractured families, Williams' lovely performance of "No One is Alone" is an exquisite reminder that kindred are not necessarily bound by blood.
Staiger and Stajmiger are fine singers whose acting has authenticity. Their three-dimensional performances reveal a complex, conflicted couple in an imperfect marriage, whose commitment to each other -- though strained -- remains intact.
Theirs is no fairy tale romance. It's a real relationship where infatuation turns to respect and mistakes and disappointment give way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Like life.
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Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 522-2121 or metropolis arts.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 4
Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission
Parking: Nearby garage and street parking
Rating: For most audiences, some material might frighten young children