Into the Woods, Touchstone Theatre.

“Like a standup comic, the tale must sense . . . the fears and hunger of its audience,” writes British literary critic Marina Warner in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s brilliant musical weaves together the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack the Giant Killer, aiming at the deepest yearnings and anxieties they suggest. And at its best, Karen Kessler’s Touchstone Theatre staging stirs the “fears and hunger” of adults and children alike as well as tickling their funny bones. This flawed but worthwhile production both gains and suffers from its low-tech intimacy; while one misses the intended special effects in several scenes of transformation, the actors’ nearness makes some of the quieter passages quite touching, especially when Matthew Orlando is onstage. As the unconfident baker, he conveys an honesty and simplicity that pay off in gentle, profound moments of self-discovery.

The rest of the cast is inconsistent. The weakest are Kathryn Gallagher’s plot-stirring witch, who achieves only mannered smugness in a role that requires complex ferocity, and Nathan T. Rankin, who completely misses the sexual subtext of Red Riding Hood’s wolf. Far more effective are Rohanna S. Doylida as Cinderella (despite her cloudy soprano), Todd Foland as her diffident prince, and Maggie Carney as the baker’s wife whose plain life is briefly made fancy by her fling with the prince.

The work remains a masterpiece: Sondheim’s witty, wise songs (well sung under the direction of William Underwood, who also leads the tiny but effective band) guide us through the story using clever Mother Goose-inspired rhymes and rhythms, while Lapine’s script traces the tales’ themes: marriage and family, romance and disillusion, death and rebirth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Snow.