Does the world really need another production of “Into the Woods’’ just now?
In the abstract, probably not. But when a theater troupe gets so many things right, as Lyric Stage Company does with its version of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, the answer has to be yes.
It’s clear from the Lyric’s captivating production that this musical is a passion project for director Spiro Veloudos. The disenchanted forest of his “Into the Woods’’ is thick with pathos, dread, and disillusion, but it’s also shot through with humor and life and wayward romance — all elements that Veloudos balances adroitly.
His 17-member cast is generally first-rate, and notably diverse, too, which has been a strength at the Lyric all season. Particular standouts are Aimee Doherty as the Witch, Lisa Yuen as the Baker’s Wife, Erica Spyres as Cinderella, John Ambrosino as the Baker, Maritza Bostic as Little Red Ridinghood, Maurice Emmanuel Parent as both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, and Sam Simahk as Rapunzel’s Prince. All of these performers seize, and largely fulfill, the comic and dramatic possibilities of their characters.
The seven-member orchestra, with music director Catherine Stornetta on the keyboard, is lively without overwhelming the singers. Elisabetta Polito’s costumes are wonderfully detailed, an eye-catching array of garments with a steampunk flavor. David Towlun’s set is stark, simple, and effective: bare trees, imposing castle, hollowed-out trunk. Lighting designer Scott Clyve skillfully augments shifts in tone and mood.
A deconstruction and mash-up of classic fairy tales that unfolds in a series of overlapping narratives, “Into the Woods’’ occupies a unique place in the Sondheim canon, having achieved more mainstream popularity than is the norm for this challenging composer — and even becoming a staple of high-school drama clubs. A movie version, starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, is slated for release later this year. Two years ago the Public Theater staged an outdoor production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, starring Donna Murphy as the Witch and Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife, trapped beneath a wig that looked like a dead possum.
The Lyric’s “Into the Woods’’ is funnier than that production, especially in Act 1, before the casualties start to mount. Act 2 is when the bill comes due, existentially speaking, and the mood turns more somber.
The Witch has laid a curse on the Baker’s family line, dooming him and his wife to childlessness — a curse she will only undo if they bring her a cow “as white as milk,’’ a cape “as red as blood,’’ hair “as yellow as corn,’’ and a slipper “as pure as gold.’’ Their quest for those items supplies the pretext for encounters with sundry fairy tale characters, the action framed by a Narrator played by Will McGarrahan in an orange bow tie.
Lapine’s book is helter-skelter and a bit thin, its useful warnings about the perils of the mob mentality notwithstanding. As for Sondheim’s score for “Into the Woods,’’ I personally would not rank it in his career top five.
But there’s no gainsaying the fact that some of his most beautiful, clever, and heart-piercing songs can be heard here. While loss — of illusions, of loved ones — is central to this musical, there are a few lyrics that rank among the most movingly affirmative Sondheim has ever written, especially in “No One Is Alone,’’ performed with a shiver-down-your-spine delicacy by Spyres, who is joined by Ambrosino, Bostic, and Gregory Balla, as Jack. The sentiment of that title phrase, repeated often in the song, stands in striking contrast with a line from “Sorry-Grateful,’’ Sondheim’s cold-eyed dissection of marriage in 1970’s “Company’’: “You hold her thinking/ ‘I’m not alone’/You’re still alone.’’
Doherty, who adds another to her growing list of strong musical performances that includes the Lyric’s “On the Town’’ and Wheelock Family Theatre’s “Hairspray,’’ delivers a wrenching rendition of “Stay With Me,’’ the Witch’s plea/warning to Rapunzel (Amanda Spinella), whom the Witch has raised as a daughter. Doherty also conjures a foreboding aura in “Last Midnight.’’
Parent summons the necessary creepiness during “Hello, Little Girl,’’ a sort-of duet between the Wolf and Bostic’s Red. He is also quite amusing as the vain and self-absorbed Prince in “Agony,’’ a duet with Simahk, and in “Any Moment,’’ a duet with Yuen. Bostic, a graduating senior at Salem State University who is a treat to watch from start to finish, does a fine job with “I Know Things Now,’’ a rueful coming-of-age tune.
Yuen is simply excellent as the Baker’s Wife. She and Ambrosino nail their duet, “It Takes Two,’’ and she brings a wistful poignancy to her big solo number, “Moments in the Woods.’’ Throughout the show, even amid the lighter moments, Yuen conveys the Baker’s Wife’s restlessness — something that nearly all of the characters feel.
The Lyric plans to open next season with another Sondheim show, “Sweeney Todd,’’ his masterwork, with Veloudos again at the helm. Based on “Into the Woods,’’ that’s a double piece of good news.