With its fairytale simplicities and adult analytics, Into the Woods is Stephen Sondheim's most profound work, with mythological and psychological depths woven into the music as well as the text and lyrics. Yet I've always enjoyed Act 1 and its artful interweaving of five happily-ever-after fairytales more than the brainier Act 2 and its grim reality checks. So I'm happy to report that the current CPCC Summer Theatre production does the best job I've seen of balancing the magic before intermission with the tragic reckonings to come.
Credit goes chiefly to Ashby Blakely and Susan Gundersheim, who rise beautifully to the occasion as The Baker and his Wife. They are the gluten that holds the five fairytales together in Act 1 and the most affecting victims of the misfortunes in Act 2. Something special happens deep in Act 2 if there is real marital chemistry between these simple folk rather than the usual one-dimensional relationship. That special thing, resulting from the Ashby-Gundersheim rapport, is a Sondheim musical with heart.
There are many more charismatic roles here -- the Witch who moonlights as Rapunzel's mother, the Narrator who slinks into his story as the Mysterious Man, and the Wolf who serenades Red Riding Hood on the way to Granny's (now multiplied to two
Wolves, following Sondheim's most recent revision). Of course, there are also the children: Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and the blundering Jack of beanstalk renown. But while their costuming often has more beauty or flair than the Bakers', none of their personalities is quite so consistently vivid.
Adam Kaplan as Jack and Britney Caughell as Little Red tend to prattle in the early going, gaining strength and a second dimension after intermission. The eagerness and yearnings of Cinderella elude Katie Chung before she is mated with her Prince, but there's real gravity to her in the climactic "No One Is Alone" after her fairytale romance is shattered.
Other performances are scuttled by the hubris of costume designer Robert Croghan. Knowing the vagaries of the Halton Theater sound system, he has designed masks for the Witch and the Wolves anyway. As a result, the Wolves' menacing "Hello, Little Girl" (by Christopher Trepinski and Grant Gustin, who later double as Cinderella and Rapunzel's princes) is feeble next to the best performance I've seen at Belmont Abbey -- and the two-wolf idea is stupid, stupid.
Worse prosthetic damage is done to Olivia Edge as the Witch. Underneath that mask, Edge is probably equaling her 2005 exploits as Grizibella in Cats, but until the mask comes off to stay, it's often difficult to decipher what she's saying and singing. Luckily, that hindrance is long gone when she sings "Last Midnight" with an apocalyptic arrogance that is truly magnificent.
The little roles tend to have the same fine polish as the Bakers'. My special shout-outs here go to Amy Van Looy as Jack's Mother and Vito Abate as the officious royal Steward. Musical director Drina Keen is reliably sharp in the orchestra, and Eddie Mabry fills the stage beautifully with his choreography. The ensembles at the end of each act are lively, thrilling, and satisfying spectacles. All in all, director Tom Hollis has put together a fine celebration of Sondheim's 80th birthday.