Theater review: Aurora delivers a sturdy ‘Into the Woods’

There are ample things to like about Aurora Theatre’s solid new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods.”

At the top of the list are powerhouse performers Natasha Drena and Bernardine Mitchell.

Drena — an actress who has won Suzi Bass Awards for playing Judy Garland and Annie Oakley — transforms herself into the hissing witch that will sow seeds of destruction in book writer Lapine’s long, laborious fairy-tale mashup. Wrapped in a slender, slinky body envelope of a dress, with piles and piles of unruly hair and — best of all — a voice that is the epitome of wicked hauteur, she cuts a figure as regal as it is demented.

Mitchell — who walks with a cane and wears the rags of a dowdy old milk woman so poor she is reduced to selling her cow — strikes the opposite pose. Her plain appearance belies a soul-smashing majesty that comes from within: a profoundly rich, emotionally textured voice that makes her one of the city’s most venerated musical divas.

Directed by Justin Anderson, these monumental talents lead a fine ensemble (Diany Rodriguez as Cinderella, Brandon O’Dell as the Baker, Christopher L. Morgan as Cinderella’s Prince — I could go on and on). But they can’t fully make up for a script that is inherently convoluted (thanks to Lapine), a clunky scenic design scheme that divides rather than unifies the action (sets courtesy of Jason Sherwood) and a laborious conceit that imagines the narrator (Evan Jones) as a young lad lost in his father’s library (Anderson’s touch).

Here’s the thing: Anyone contemplating a revival of this gloriously scored, narratively treacherous morality tale would be well advised to streamline rather than embellish.

And yet, Sondheim provides. And so do Aurora’s musical comedians.

Googie Uterhardt is a delightfully naughty wolf, the better to lure Shelli Delgado’s Little Red Riding Hood. Delgado is winning, but it’s hard to top Rodriguez’s finely detailed take on this character at the Alliance Theatre, in 2011. Though Rodriguez scores as a successful Cinderella, I do miss her Little Red.

Caroline Arapoglou is lovely as the tragic Rapunzel, who gets dragged around by the bullying witch. Brian Walker gives a strong breakout turn as the dim-witted Jack, he of beanstalk fame. And Wendy Melkonian plays opposite O’Dell as the mostly dutiful Baker’s Wife, though she refrains from some of her usual rubber-faced tomfoolery.

In the end, Anderson, musical director Ann-Carol Pence, choreographer Sarah Turner Sechelski and their troupe deliver on the singing and dancing. But the show drags on at about three hours (including intermission), and often feels more fragmented than focused.

Sondheim has never been a “happily ever after” kind of guy, and “Into the Woods” explores the terror and chaos of primal fear and desire: the “big tall terrible giants in the sky.”

In life as in literature, the possibility for love and heartbreak, agony and ecstasy, loss and rebirth lurks at every turn. But somewhere in the distance of this densely crowded forest, there are glimmers of light. We’d be wise to follow that path.

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