Don’t believe in fairy tales? You may change your mind when you see Into The Woods, the second production of the summer season at Cabrillo Stage. While the show itself takes a somewhat sardonic view of the flip side of “happily ever after,” and cautions us to be careful what we wish for, the Cabrillo production is so teeming with the magic of live theater, it’ll make a believer out of anyone.
The blockbuster musical from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a fairy tale mashup that examines the tropes of the genre—true love, quests of honor, virtue rewarded—before and after the tales’ traditional happily-ever-after conclusions. It’s a gift of a show, but also a challenge, from Sondheim’s fiendishly clever and intricate (but often tongue-twisting) lyrics to creating the necessary magical mood by means of stagecraft alone. Fortunately, director and choreographer Janie Scott and her intrepid team are up to the task in this beautifully sung, wonderfully atmospheric production.
“Once upon a time … ” intones the onstage narrator to start things off. Andrew Ceglio is a formidable presence throughout in the role, observing the action with cool aplomb. (He also plays the Mysterious Man running loose in the woods with unhinged glee.) Against a gorgeous, eerie, cleverly functional forest backdrop from scenic designer Skip Epperson, the principal characters are introduced.
Young Jack (played with eager innocence by Jackson Brivic) lives with his exasperated mother (Alice Christine Hughes) and his best friend, their cow Milky White. (Yes, it’s a guy in a cow suit, but Isai Centeno brings humor and a touch of genuine pathos to the pantomime role.) They wish they weren’t so poor that they have to sell the cow.
Cinderella (Ashley Rae Little) rakes ashes out of the grate for her mean, social-climbing stepmother (Melanie Olivia Camras) and vain, twittery stepsisters (the fractious comedy duet of Morgan Peters and Catrina Contini) and wishes she could go to the prince’s festival. Little captures Cinderella’s feisty fortitude, and possesses perhaps the loveliest, most ethereal voice in a cast of strong singers.
The hard-working village baker (Ian Leonard) and the loyal baker’s wife (Melissa Harrison) wish more than anything for a child. But they can’t produce one, because the witch next door (Kristen Hermosillo) once visited a curse on the baker’s long-gone father. This salt-of-the-earth couple grounds the more fantastical elements in the show, with Harrison an especially strong presence in what may be the most demanding and pivotal role.
But the curse may be lifted if they obtain for the conniving witch some magical objects—a quest that sets the rest of the plot in motion. Into their orbit skips gluttonous, reckless Red (a very funny Brittney Mignano) with her basket of goodies for Granny. Rapunzel (Amy Young) is imprisoned in her tower by the doting witch, who longs to be her surrogate mother.
The prince who discovers her (Michael Stahl), and the smitten prince who doggedly pursues Cinderella after the festival (David Jackson) turn out to be brothers, equally fickle in their romantic attachments. (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” explains Cinderella’s prince.) The princes’ ironic duet “Agony” is a highlight, as is the dueling wordplay of Cinderella’s prince and the baker’s wife in “Any Moment,” deep in the woods. Jackson is also great fun as the slinky wolf with designs on Red.
Maria Crush’s costumes are storybook-perfect. Kyle Grant’s lighting design is effective throughout, from the way the treetops overhanging the stage are lit to create depth to the sudden blackout inside Granny’s cottage when things get too gruesome. Scott has imaginative staging solutions for tricky elements, like the arrival of a giant (well, part of her), or a carriage full of revelers, complete with prancing horse. When one of the princes tours the village, he slides along on an ornate carousel pony.
Scott conjures a winsome, witty production of this tale of bittersweet enchantment. It’s everything an audience could wish for.