Medieval theologians are said to have wondered how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Judging from the exceptional production of "Into the Woods" at the Spotlighters, the number may be almost infinite -- that is, if local musical theater wizard Todd Pearthree is directing and choreographing.
Pearthree has chosen this challenging Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy-tale musical to launch his new company, the Musical Theatre Machine, which is in residence at the Spotlighters. He's started with material that is not only demanding musically and thematically, it's also a large show to pull off on the Spotlighters' small in-the-round stage.
However, unlike directors who slavishly re-create Broadway staging, Pearthree seems to revel in putting an original stamp on shows, and in this case, the Spotlighters' physical constraints leave him no other choice.
The first thing you realize when you take your seat is that, because no one is more than three rows away from the vine-covered playing space, the effect is that of being in the woods along with characters.
And Pearthree has assembled a delightfully talented troupe with which to traverse the forest. Indeed, several cast members, particularly Cindy Rinaldi as street-smart Little Red Riding Hood and Liz Boyer as the pragmatic Baker's Wife, are as
accomplished as their counterparts were at the Mechanic Theatre three years ago.
Lapine's clever plot intermingles classic fairy tales -- Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel -- with a new story about a childless baker and his wife. At the end of the first act, the characters' wishes have been granted and they are on the brink of happily-ever-after.
In the second act, which owes a debt to Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales," the shine is beginning to tarnish on happily-ever-after and the fairy-tale village has been threatened by a giantess -- the angry widow of the ogre Jack slew.
Perhaps one of the best measures of the success of Pearthree's efforts is that his compact, up-close staging makes you realize the show is about more than the caveat: "Be careful what you wish for."
Sharing this small space with these imperiled characters, you can't help but wonder what you would do in their place. Would you merely try to save yourself, or would you band together against the common enemy? Sondheim, who concludes the musical with the lullaby, "No One Is Alone," clearly intends the latter, and this tiny but ambitious production conveys this intention with a force as resonant as myth and as current as the war against any of the scourges facing modern man (AIDS, drugs, racism, nuclear war, take your pick).
Of course, another reason such large concerns come across so strongly here is that most of the smaller moments are beautifully realized as well. Highlights include the reprise of the complex comic duet, "Agony," in which Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince (Edward J. Peters and Mark Blackburn) lust ++ after Sleeping Beauty and Snow White; the whimsical scenes in which Eileen Keenan's Cinderella talks to birds; and the ominous 11th-hour song, "The Last Midnight," in which Nancy Parrish Asendorf's Witch, who is rather lackluster in the early going, at last casts a powerful spell.
The best stage magic, however, comes in the finale, when Pearthree has the entire cast dancing on the aforementioned pinhead-sized stage. The effect is as intricate as an animated Spirograph drawing. It's difficult to imagine a more auspicious debut for a new company. Who says fairy tales don't come true?
"Into the Woods"
Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. matinees Feb. 21 and 28. Through Feb. 28.
Call: (410) 825-2554.