Like Willow Smith, Rapunzel (Felicia Curry) loves her hair. And why shouldn’t she? It is her crowning glory, her plaything, a transportation system, and until Prince Brian (Jonathan Atkinson) comes along, her only friend.
That may make Rapunzel seem a bit pitiful—after all, it’s like thinking of your elbow as your BFF—but as embodied by Miss Curry, the young heroine exudes resourcefulness and a durable sense of wonder. Which is not that easy to do when you consider Rapunzel has been locked in a tower all her life by a Witch (Gillian Shelly) whom she believes is her mother.
Imagination Stage’s feisty production of the musical by David Crane and Marta Kauffman (creators of a little thing called Friends and another successful sitcom, Veronica’s Closet) emphasizes pluck and the first, tentative steps toward independence by both Rapunzel and Prince Brian over a starry-eyed Disney Princess storyline of a blandly handsome hero rescuing a damsel in distress.
If there’s rescuing to be done, they prefer to do it together. Rapunzel needs to see the big, bad world for herself and Prince Brian wants to show his father (Michael John Casey) he’s got the stuff to be an effective monarch someday. Both are chafing under the constraints of their over-protective parents, who believe by almost ridiculously micro-managing, they can keep their children safe from harm.
Helicopter parents have nothing on the emerald-hued Witch, who, with a flick of her hands and a twist of her magic ring, can change people into frogs and stones, conjure nearly everything Rapunzel wishes , and even turn back the clock so her daughter is eternally 15 and therefore not eligible for a Sweet Sixteen promise of a taste of freedom.
Rapunzel, sick of talking to the birds, wants out. Prince Brian is happy to oblige and there are some sweetly comic scenes when he brings items to show her—a kite, helmet and a flute—and her reactions range from skepticism to enchantment. They plot her escape, but the Witch discovers their plan and banishes Rapunzel and renders Prince Brian blind.
They venture out of the tower and make their way to the village and the castle, and the scariness of such a journey is tempered by comic moments that mine Rapunzel’s naiveté and Prince Brian’s lack of sight. Sent to hire a carriage, Rapunzel spends all their money—acquired by her selling her hair to a wigmaker—on a mop. Prince Brian is frustrated by the fact that no one recognizes him as royalty because of the dark glasses the Witch affixed to his face. Yet, by inventiveness and resolve, they make it to the castle and to the inevitable happy ending.
All of this is rendered in a musical replete with light, tuneful ditties with witty lyrics that remind you of Into the Woods without the angst. Milagros Ponce de Leon’s set provides visual splendors that complement the aural delights with a psychedelic wood made of what looks like the grooviest stained glass you’ve ever come across and a tiny, Tudor village ringing the stage.
What’s winning about this Rapunzel is that no one is helpless—especially the female characters. The show is about helping each other out, providing what another person may lack. Another twist is that the stock characters are anything but—Rapunzel is trapped in a tower, but as played by Miss Curry is self-sufficient and spirited; Mr. Atkinson’s Justin Bieber-inspired Prince Brian is not insipid, but full of doubts and dreams; and Miss Shelly’s Witch is not a storybook baddie, but someone surprisingly vulnerable and touchingly, wrong-headedly maternal. Mr. Casey brings even more merriment to the proceedings playing a variety of roles, everything from a shrewd Valet to a fidgety King and a flighty Wigmaker.
With robust humor and compassion, Rapunzel shows the importance of just letting go.
Books and lyrics by David Crane and Marta Kauffman
Music by Michael Skloff
Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer
Produced by Imagination Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission