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Center Stage

Humdinger of a problem


John Viars, director of “Into the Woods,” gets the crowd scenes. In big numbers like “First Midnight,” he shuttles his glittery troupe in all directions. The comings and goings create a sense of urgency, which can seem lacking in Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale pastiche. Its storylines can seem scattered, never isolating one hero or romance. For this, it’s been called a “problem musical,” despite its worldwide success (including Meryl Streep’s greatest singing role in the 2014 movie).

“Into the Woods.” Des Moines Playhouse, Wednesday, Sept. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 4. Wednesday – Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m.

“Into the Woods.” Des Moines Playhouse, Wednesday, Sept. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 4. Wednesday – Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m.

Yet at the Playhouse, Viars makes the most of the script’s democracy — even as his production lifts two women to spectacular heights.

Katy Merriman (Cinderella) and Sarah Hinzman (the baker’s wife) can solve any problem. Merriman nails the opening “I wish…,” her uplifted grin a Klieg light, launching a lovely melody with a cry from the heart. Later on, tucking her chin as she prepares to encourage another damaged girl, she conveys new-forged strength. As for Hinzman, she puts “It Takes Two” through the whole range of feelings between husband and wife, her smile sardonic and seductive. Her later adulterous fling falls into a similar wobble — hot and bothered. Nor does either woman mangle so much as a syllable of Sondheim’s jam-packed rhymes.

These two also provide the more subdued costumes amid Angela Lampe’s rainbow whirl. Merriman has a few scenes in her golden orange Princess gown, but more often, like Hinzman, she’s in homey blue-gray. The men, instead, are peacocks. Jonathan Brugioni, in cap and vest and short-waist jacket, suggests a walking definition of “colorful raiment.” Better yet, the outward complication reflects the character’s soul, as Brugioni’s baker often matches his wife’s emotional range. One change of heart gives him fresh upper-body bulk, and another takes it away.

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (Oct)

WolfRedOther players, to be sure, gambol impressively through both the plot’s upended box of toys and the score’s playful, punning switchbacks between dialogue and song. The challenge is nothing new for Gina Gedler, since her many Playhouse turns include the Cinderella role 25 years ago. This time Gedlar is the witch, almost a bipolar figure, for which she summons up both motherly warmth and a murderous chill. Also, Jonathan deLima doesn’t let the layers of his wolf costume muffle his lust, and Stevie LeWarne projects a sneering charm as the unfaithful prince.

It’s a humdinger, no less, right down to the sound at each drop of a magic bean: a resonant “ding!” But then there was the set — the latest dud. Recently these have been mailed in from Florida, home to designer Alan Reynolds. He has a glowing resume, but for the Playhouse he pulls from the back files. For “Woods” he made do with a simple two-tier arrangement, woods the color of wood and a moon-and-castle backdrop. A key visual, a tree that falls on one character, simply didn’t come off. A production like this deserves a look that matches the quality of the rest.

Overheard In the Lobby: On Sept. 30, Stephens Auditorium in Ames presents “Last Comic Standing.” CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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