Julie Klein as the Witch and Jim Andes as the Narrator in Into the Woods (Studio 66 photo)
What if you combined several Grimm fairy tales and set them to music? And what if you stretched the tales beyond their usual endings to see if the characters really lived “happily ever after?” If you did all that, you’d come up with Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical that premiered on Broadway in 1987. When I first saw the musical 20 years ago, I was won over by Lapine’s ingenious book and by composer/lyricist Sondheim’s witty tunes. I didn’t find Act 2 quite as enjoyable as Act 1, but overall I was mightily impressed. Shadowbox Live’s new production also impresses in some ways, but it disappoints in important other ways. Musically, it’s great, thanks to musical director Matthew Hahn, a mighty four-piece band and lots of good singers. The latter include some performers who are relatively unknown and others who are familiar but who sing with unexpected power. Visually, the show is also great. Mark Dahnke’s scenic design efficiently sets the tone despite being limited by the shallow Shadowbox stage, and Linda Mullin’s costumes are delightful and colorful. Best of all are the puppets (constructed by Nikos Fvodor Rutkowski) that bring a cow, a goose and other featured animals to life. The one visual element that could use some honing is Scott Aldridge’s lighting. It’s kept low in an apparent attempt to promote a mystical atmosphere, but it’s so low that characters’ faces are often lost in the shadows. But it’s the characters themselves that are the main problem here. As reconceived by director Stev Guyer and the rest of his team, they’re simply not as interesting or appealing as the Lapine/Sondheim originals. The most obvious changeling is Little Red Riding Hood, usually depicted as a naïve girl who grows up fast after being attacked by the big, bad Wolf (played here by a humorously lascivious Brandon Anderson). Shadowbox’s version of Red (Anita McFarren) is a provocative brat who seems unfazed by the Wolf’s advances. Despite McFarren’s best efforts, there’s no way she can make a believable transition to the thoughtful girl she becomes in Act 2. Cinderella (Nikki Fagin) also is changed, being depicted from the get-go as a feminist who doesn’t so much want a prince as she wants the chance to get a good education. Fagin sings better than ever in the role, but the character’s evolutionary arc has been undercut by the show’s innovations. As always, the various tales are tied together by a married couple and their quest to lift the curse that has left them childless. For unknown reasons, Shadowbox has changed the man from a Baker to a “Maker” who has constructed a doll and now hopes to bring it to life. Otherwise, the principled husband (John Boyd) and his pragmatic wife (Leah Haviland) go through the same trials as always, trying to collect the ingredients that a pissed-off Witch (Julie Klein) has demanded as a prerequisite to un-cursing them. Actually, everyone goes through the same trials as in the original musical. They simply start from different places, depriving their respective journeys of the emotional richness they should have and making Act 2 even more of a letdown than it ordinarily is. Shadowbox’s Into the Woods does have funny characters, including the IQ-challenged Jack (Will Macke) and the foppish Steward (Zach Tarantelli). It also has funny moments, as when two self-centered princes (Jamie Barrow and Billy DePetro) join their voices in the lovesick lament “Agony.” In general, though, Shadowbox’s tweaks result in a production that’s both less witty and less affecting than it should be. Into the Woods will continue at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through June 8 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or