Joseph Gordon-Levitt

'Woods' meets big Sondheim challenge

“Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim's 1986 fractured fairy tale and great musical, has giants, princes, an insatiable wolf, an invisible dwarf and a bipolar witch — for starters.

The show takes Brothers Grimm stories including “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and others and turns them inside out, shining a light on their deep psychological meaning.

Witty, memorable lyrics are at the heart of “Into the Woods,” and it's a task for a large cast in continuous motion to maintain clear diction and project every word — a tough job likely even for Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep, who have signed on to appear in an upcoming Disney film adaptation of the musical directed by Rob Marshall.

Locally, Ray of Light Theatre dynamically meets the challenge in its production of the show at the Eureka Theatre directed by Eliza Leoni and choreographed by Lauren Rosi.

Two princes (David Naughton and Ted Zoldan) shine in their showstopper duet “Agony,” but nicely keep the second act's lyrical songs (“No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen”) quiet and restrained.

However, on opening night, the reprise of “Agony,” with changed lyrics (as the now-married royalty lust after other enchanted princesses), wasn't clear enough to make an meaningful impact.

At the center of the show are the Baker and the Baker's Wife, who are on a quest to reverse a witch's curse that prevents them from having a child. Austin Ferris and Marisa Cozart are excellent in the lead roles, both singing and acting, although Cozart could project more.

As Little Red, Allison Meneley is the dynamo of the show, with a voice shaking the rafters, and hilarious mugging that captivates the Wolf (John Flaw) and the audience.

Michelle Jasso, as the Witch, exhibits an operatic voice and a stunning transformation as she regains her youth only to lose her powers.

Also notable are Courtney Merrell as Cinderella, Derek Travis Collard as the Narrator/Mysterious Man and Melissa Reinertson as Rapunzel.

Kyle Stoner is outstanding as young Jack, who is forced to trade his beloved cow for the magic beans that lead him to dangerous adventures with giants at the top of his beanstalk.

Nancy Sale is marvelous as Jack's mother; Nikki Arias is a riot as Cinderella's mean stepmother; and Angela Jarosz plays two very different characters, Cinderella's saintly mother and Little Red's feisty grandmother.

The unamplified eight-piece band, under the direction of David Möschler, handles Sondheim's complex, difficult score with distinction. Violinist Lucas Gayda and percussionist Lily Kaye Sevier make special contributions.

Into the Woods

Presented by Ray of Light Theatre

Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays; closes June 29

Tickets: $25 to $36

Contact: (415) 788-7469, www.rayoflighttheatre.com

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