TAMPA — The unmistakable imprint of Stephen Sondheim shines through from the prologue of Into the Woods, in which fairy tale characters confess their deepest desires.
Cinderella wants to attend the ball. A simple boy named Jack, known for the beanstalk he unwittingly planted, only wants his cow to produce milk. A baker and his wife wish for a child.
Their interrelated needs unfold deep in the midst of a comforting and sometimes terrifying forest, set once upon a time and today. Sondheim's musical, for which James Lapine wrote the book, debuted on Broadway in 1987, winning Tony Awards in a field that included Phantom of the Opera. A new national tour opened its first stop this week at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. This is a serious effort to capture the humor and humanity of a unique musical.
At its best, the production highlights tender and whimsical tales about fragile hopes meeting an indifferent world and learning to live with the consequences. A charming transparency marks it, with actors doubling as stage musicians. Individual performances elevate the show and limit it, just as touring musicals attract both seasoned performers who could use the work and actors who need seasoning.
It's not the tour's fault that Freefall Theatre did the show two years ago in its far more intimate setting or that its version ran like a Swiss watch.
But the comparison is inevitable against the cavernous Morsani Theater, built to handle massive productions. In this setting, actors sometimes kept the show's brisk pace at the expense of diction, which is critical for keeping up with numerous interlocking tales.
The big-stage version also grinds subtler moments underfoot in favor of slapstick. They play up a drunken Rapunzel, the prolonged belch of a cow and gallop a broom-handled horse gag into the ground. A lot of jokes seemed tailored to children not in the audience. A full house did not laugh so often as listen attentively.
No question, Sondheim's songs were mostly rendered well by capable singers. But that alone does not a production make.
Fortunately, enough of those performers rose to the task to carry the message home. Anthony Chatmon II made for a devilish prince as well as Little Red Riding Hood's wolf (Hello, Little Girl), just one example of the show's intentional character doubling that gives it an extra dimension. Bonne Kramer (who attended Tampa's Blake High) applied herself to the role of Cinderella's stepmother like a coat of nail polish, while also performing Jack's mother and playing the bassoon.
The linchpin of this show — and the musical itself — is the witch (played by Meryl Streep in a Disney film adaptation), and here Vanessa Reseland elevates the entire cast. Reseland delivers humor and pathos while enunciating every syllable, bringing all of the show's strengths together in a climactic moment with The Last Midnight.
In the end, the story with its meandering twists both celebrates and undermines all fairy tales and finds threads to the audience with those messages. We compromise our values under stress, we give the wrong advice, we lose our way. These elements, woven together by a brilliant composer, are the reason Into the Woods has been revived many times since its debut, explaining the launch of another national tour, with more surely to come.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.