‘Rapunzel’ lets down its hair and has some fun

April 11, 2012

If you have to have a witch for a mother, you could do a lot worse than the enchantress in Imagination Stage’s “Rapunzel.” Sure, this black-arts virtuoso has a bad habit of turning acquaintances into brussels sprouts, and she keeps her adopted daughter in a tower with no stairs. But the Witch is a secret romantic; she likes to tango; and she bakes a mean eye-of-newt cake.

The tongue-in-cheek portrait of the sorceress-mom (actress Gillian Shelly, displaying sure comic flair) is one of the strengths of “Rapunzel,” a pleasant-enough version of the Brothers Grimm classic, with book and lyrics by David Crane and Marta Kauffman (creators of TV’s “Friends”) and score by Michael Skloff. Fluently directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer and featuring an economically sized cast of four, it’s a gently quirky entertainment that evokes a world of magical wonders while pondering more mundane truths — like the fact that kids grow up, and that, sooner or later, we all have to venture outside our personal comfort zones.

The stairless tower is a comfort zone, as well as a prison, for the teenage Rapunzel (Felicia Curry, channeling innocence, sweetness and, when it comes to the Witch’s overprotectiveness, plausibly conflicted emotions).

After a lifetime of treating her long hair as a BFF, the girl is understandably excited to meet Prince Brian, a royal scion who hasn’t slain any dragons yet and so feels himself to be an underachiever.

When the Witch catches the prince (Jonathan Atkinson, acting affably hapless) breaking into the tower, she punishes him with a hex: a pair of opaque glasses that he can’t remove. Then she sends the two young people into exile. But never fear: Naive as she is, Rapunzel demonstrates courage while guiding the temporarily blinded prince through the kingdom, and events end happily for everyone — including the Witch.

The tale’s upbeat tone is reflected in Skloff’s perky music (which pays occasional homage to Renaissance court dances) and in the swirly, multicolored forest set designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon (a tree-house-size tower scoots on for the scenes that take place in Rapunzel’s cozy jail).

Exuberance also buoys the fairy-tale costumes (designed by Frank Labovitz) and some of the characters’ coiffures: The Witch’s tresses are the color of lime Jell-O, for instance, and Prince Brian’s shaggy ’do suggests Rod Stewart after a slightly deflating royalty statement.

Admittedly, the guy exhibiting the least amount of hair does most of the dramaturgical heavy-lifting: Michael John Casey (with a silvery buzz cut) plays the prince’s long-suffering valet Simon, as well as the king, an innkeeper, a cow and a con man who bamboozles Rapunzel into buying a super-pricey mop. The actor brings panache to all of these turns, but he’s particularly appealing as Simon, who learns that the Witch can be a rather charming sort.

New experiences can be scary but also rewarding, “Rapunzel” reminds us. Who can argue with that?

Wren is a freelance writer.

Rapunzel

Book and lyrics by David Crane and Marta Kauffman; music by Michael Skloff. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; choreography, Ilona Kessell; lighting design, Zac Gilbert; sound design, Christopher Baine. 90 minutes. Through May 20 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660 or www.imaginationstage.org.

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