As the lights come up for intermission during Barksdale Theatre's entertaining musical "Into the Woods," you may ask (as my companion did on opening night), "Now what?" An intricate series of fairy tales featuring Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and others comes to a surprisingly tidy conclusion as the first act ends. But composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine are just setting the stage for an expectation-defying second act, where we witness the messy aftermath of wishes coming true, a succession of tragedies and indiscretions that seems to imply that "uneasily ever after" would be an apt epitaph to most stories.
"Into the Woods" is still as stirring and thought-provoking today as it was when it premiered on Broadway 20 years ago perhaps even more so. As a grieving giant goes about wreaking havoc, it's hard not to think about the wars of retribution that are currently being waged around the world. And the characters who clash in the highly comical song "Your Fault" bear a certain resemblance to today's finger-pointing pundits. But this is no browbeating lesson play: Themes are addressed with wry wit and whimsy, and just when the mood is getting darkest, Sondheim pulls out one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful ballads in theater, "No One Is Alone," to wrap things up.
In general, director Robin Arthur has staged a sterling production of this gem, but there are a number of bumps along the path. A few cast members hit bum notes during the opening-night performance, which may be in part because the orchestra (led by musical director Jimmy Hicks) seemed to have difficulty with some of Sondheim's more convoluted melodies. The trees-and-rocks scenic design by Mercedes Schaum is functional enough, but does one nondescript patch of trees moving back and forth between scenes indicate a change of locale? I was never sure.
For every rough spot, though, there are three times as many shining moments. Rita Markova's Cinderella is as sweet of disposition and pure of voice as any princess could hope to be. Audra Honaker's deadpan take on Little Red Riding Hood generates hoots of laughter throughout, and Rachel Abrams is both slyly comic and bracingly sincere as the Baker's Wife. The alternately lecherous and chivalrous princes (Russell Rowland and Zak Resnick) bring down the house with their overwrought rendition of "Agony."
Performing honors of the night go to Robyn O'Neill, however, who makes her witch in turns hilariously peevish and painfully protective while consistently belting out show-stopping songs. O'Neill was a superb Little Red in Swift Creek Mill's production of "Into the Woods" more than 15 years ago, and clearly both she and the show have aged well.
While the fairy tales are familiar, the way they intersect and complement each other in this innovative show are surprising and delightful. And the modern-day morals that they impart may generate some intriguing post-show conversation. Late in the proceedings, the refrain is repeated: "You decide what's right, you decide what's good." "Into the Woods" is definitely good and the Barksdale has done it up right. S
"Into the Woods" plays at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with occasional weekend matinees and Tuesday-night performances, through Aug. 19. Tickets are $34-$38. Call 282-2620 for details.