The cast of the Hangar Theatre’s “Into the Woods,”

The cast of the Hangar Theatre’s “Into the Woods,” which runs until July 13. 

A hit, a palpable hit! That’s the Hangar Theatre’s current production of “Into the Woods,” the award-winning 1986 musical with charming music and clever lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Strong, high-energy ensemble work emerges under the inspired direction of Michael Barakiva, assisted by choreographer Andrea Leigh-Smith.

In case you haven’t memorized this classic, it’s a mishmash of traditional European fairy tales, with characters from several stories all intersecting in the magical woods. Everyone has wishes and desires –– Jack and his mother to prosper, Cinderella to attend the festival, Rapunzel to escape her cloistered life, Red Riding Hood to outwit the Wolf, the Baker and his Wife to finally have a child. And lo! eventually all their prayers are answered. That’s act one, if you recall; act two’s considerably more like real life –– be careful what you wish for; it may come true.

The first thing you’ll notice about this production is that Shoko Kambara’s set (lit by Miriam Nilofa Crowe) looks an awful lot like a junkyard, or, more kindly, a chaotic yard sale. Discards are piled everywhere –– a rusty radiator, truck tire, basketball backboard, broken air conditioner, mangled lawn chairs, even a Corinthian capital to a long-lost column. The list goes on and on. Once treasured, now trashed. Perhaps a metaphor for life’s debris, a hint of the second act’s disillusionment?

In perfect tongue-in-cheek sync with this setting are Megan Rutherford’s myriad costumes, diverse and outrageous, made from all sorts of “found” and re-purposed materials, with an emphasis on plastic bags. (Yes, Cinderella and her sisters can look ravishing in polymers.) Fairy tales are make-believe, after all, so let’s play dress-up. The spirit of play persists in the props (blood-burst sunglasses when birds peck out eyes; Rapunzel’s industrial-strength braid; hanging apple-green umbrellas to signify the forest (eventually torn and tattered post-giant invasion). And of course a tall metal ladder ascends into the sky; Jack will be climbing that beanstalk.

The most stunning costume is the Witch’s green leafy dress; yes, remember her? Aggrieved years earlier, she cursed the baker’s lineage and now sets near-impossible tasks to lift the spell. 

A dozen actors, some playing multiple roles, unfurl the intertwining stories. Herndon Lackey is the so-chill narrator, natty in a chartreuse glitter suit. Bretana Turkon pines as Rapunzel, seeming sadder once saddled with twins. Her constraining mother here is the vengeful Witch, played with inexhaustible fury by Talia Thiesfield.

Miles Gutierrez-Riley is a winsome Jack in short pants; grieving for his lost cow (a white bicycle with odd attachments) or his mother, he’s incredibly present. Jane Blass is wonderfully funny as his worried mother, adding another distinct personality to this mix. The longing and mistakes of parenting are a main theme here; “children don’t listen” is a common refrain.

Which brings us to the pivotal Baker and Wife, who long for a child and will go to almost any lengths to have one. Aundre Seals is compassionate and heartbreaking as the husband, always trying to do what’s right; an eloquent Erica Steinhagen is the wife who holds him up and talks sense. In all the mayhem, they’re a marvelous and stable duo to watch.

The romantic characters are inevitably the most comical: Aline Mayagoitia’s Cinderella, who can’t really decide if she wants or needs a man; Graham Stevens and Jared Brendon Hopper as the two smug princes, rolling around delightfully on lit-up Segways, also doubling as the competitive evil stepsisters; and a saucy Sandrinne Edstrom as Little Red, absurdly eager for the fray once she’s tasted blood. (Zoe Zimin is her Granny and the snotty stepmother; Stevens also has two sexy scenes as the Wolf.)

The comedy is both broad and subtle; you can’t take your eyes off these actors. And all the voices do justice to Sondheim’s songs, from the princes’ amusing “Agony” duet to the moving lyricism of “No One is Alone.” Thiesfield’s Witch tends to shrillness in her fast numbers, unfortunately; but Mayagoitia’s singing is spellbinding. Daniel Lincoln’s orchestra, barely hidden behind all the garbage, handsomely supports them all.

This fast-paced show, though three hours long, is so wildly entertaining you may want to see it again — to catch every glance and strut, every double entendre and hard-won emotional truth.

“Into the Woods,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Michael Barakiva. At the Hangar Theatre, through July 13. Tickets at 607-273-2787 or HangarTheatre.org.

Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College. 

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