Suffer the Children

Though both Beauty and Willows have problems, they're at least clearly intended for children. By contrast, parents should know that the musical Into the Woods, now playing at the New Denver Civic Theatre and directly based on several fairy tales, is decidedly not for children. The Stephen Sondheim musical starts out well but perverts its fairy-tale origins with cheesy pop psychology in the second act, making the play depressing and inappropriate for small fry.

The Broadway hit entwines the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. A surprisingly complex witch (the cross-dressing Jeff Roark as a male Mommie Dearest) keeps the action moving: She's the driving force behind a subplot about a baker and his wife who desperately want to have a child. Everybody meets in the woods where all kinds of things are possible, and all the fairy tales end as they should. In fact, the first act is utterly exhilarating and would delight most children.

However, Sondheim and playwright James Lapine switch gears in the second act, giving all the fairy tales cynical, real-life consequences. Prince Charming turns out to be a philanderer, seducing the baker's wife and leaving Cinderella to find a new purpose in life. Poor Rapunzel (who let down her hair once too often) can't get over her lousy childhood and throws herself in the path of Mrs. Giant, who has slid down the beanstalk to get her revenge on Jack and anybody else who gets in her way.

This production, by the new company Feast of Fools, is highly polished, though a too-loud soundtrack drowns out the singers about a third of the time. And despite its thematic drawbacks, it offers one of the best casts yet assembled on the stage at the Civic. In the winning first act, T. David Rutherford gleefully narrates as powerhouse actors Carla Kaiser (hilarious as Jack's protective mom), Sarah Mae Johnson (the feminist Cinderella), Shayna Rose Mordue (purposefully obnoxious as Red Riding Hood), Tim Murtaugh (the sexy Wolf) and lovely Theresa Klug (the troubled Rapunzel) invent new meanings for enchantment. Michael Alessandro and Shana Kelly as the baker and his wife make us care about the magic spells of the first act.

But all the deconstruction in the second act is an imposition on a body of work that's thousands of years old and shouldn't be dismissed so easily. The first act delights because it is truer to the spirit of these ancient stories. The second act, which tries to show the darker implications of fairy tales, only succeeds in betraying them.

Beauty and the Beast, through March 23 at the Shwayder Children's Theatre, 350 South Dahlia Street, 321-8297.

The Wind in the Willows, through May 16 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

Into the Woods, through March 9 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.

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