Over the past quarter century or so, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods has become one of the most performed musicals in the U.S.—in regional CLOs, on college and high school campuses, and in intimate theaters. Its first act, which magically combines some of the best loved of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and its second, which explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after,” make for a show which retains its freshness and originality two decades after it first captivated Broadway audiences.

The Sondheim/Lapine favorite now gets an absolutely smashing revival on the campus of UC Irvine—a production that rivals the best that professional regional theaters have to offer. Under the inspired direction of Department Chair Eli Simon, and with a cast of sensational triple-threats, a number of whom have already amassed impressive professional résumés, UCI’s Into The Woods ranks among the very best of the thirteen productions I’ve seen of it since the First National Tour played the Ahmanson in 1989.

Lapine’s book ingeniously takes well-known characters from Cinderella, Jack And The Beanstock, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, adds an original pair of his own (the childless Baker and his wife) and a Witch, and has them meet and interact while on a variety of missions which have sent them Into The Woods. Cinderella attends her ball (though here it is a festival lasting several days), Jack goes off to sell Milky White, his beloved cow, Red Riding Hood leaves to visit Grandma’s house, and the Baker and his wife take off in search of four magic ingredients which the Witch says will allow them to conceive a child. By the end of the first act, all the characters have become acquainted and their fairy tale happiness has been assured—until the narrator’s Act 1 curtain line (“To Be Continued”) alerts us that there is more, much more, to come.

Sondheim’s songs go from his signature “where did that note come from” ditties (“On The Steps Of The Palace”) to instantly hummable ballads (“Children Will Listen”) to the jaunty title song, and his lyrics are both clever (“If it were not for the thicket. A thicket’s no trick. Is it thick? It’s the thickest. The quickest is pick it apart with a stick.”) and profound (“Careful the things you do. Children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen.”).

Director Simon’s imaginative Into The Woods touches are everywhere, beginning with its setting, inspired by a walk though a snow blizzard one icy winter, a concept carried out to stunning effect in Sheryl Liu’s all-white scenic design, which features panels of snow-white trunks and branches in silhouette, moved during scene changes by a trio of Snow Elves, who also accompany the character known only as Mysterious Man and even double (or should that be triple) as an imitation Milky White at one crucial point.

Among the most impressive Simon moments, I particularly liked the Wolf salting Little Red Ridinghood in anticipation of dining on her, a fed-up Rapunzel pretending to hang herself from her hair, Red Ridinghood taking solace in mouthfuls of bread amidst her sobs upon the theft of her cape, Jack swinging onstage from a vine Tarzan-style to the opening notes of “Giants In The Sky,” the two princes comparing the lengths of their swords to see if size does indeed matter, and many more.

Never have I seen an all-around finer cast in a university production, or heard Into The Woods better sung. There are truly no weak links among either leading or supporting performers, with some giving among the finest performances I’ve seen in these roles. (UC Irvine’s production is also the first I’ve seen where Rapunzel’s prince and not Cinderella’s gets to play the Wolf, a more balanced divvying up of roles, particularly in a student production. Having Cinderella’s mother double as Snow White and the Grandmother as Sleeping Beauty is another wise choice.)

Having MFA students Greg Beam and Jesse Easley appear respectively as the Narrator/Mysterious Man and as the Baker not only gives these characters a more mature look but also the benefit of these two outstanding performers’ professional experience and acting and vocal chops. (Easley appears courtesy of Actors’ Equity, as does the delightfully spunky, big-voiced Sophie Oda as Little Red Ridinghood.) Opposite Easley as the Baker’s Wife, Kagiso Paynter possesses the beauty and grace of a young Diahann Carroll. Ashley Nordland is an exquisite Cinderella and sings like a dream. Yael Wartens makes for an amusingly hysterical Rapunzel and Erika Haaland a deliciously dotty Jack’s Mother. Jacob Haren’s cute-as-a-button Jack is the best I’ve seen the role played and sung in a good long while. Daniel Mitchell milks every succulent Wolf moment, and doubles hilariously as Rapunzel’s Prince. Ian Parmenter combines Prince Charming looks, a dancer’s grace, comedic gifts, and a gorgeous singing voice as Cinderella’s Prince. Natalie Thornton, Annie Potter, and Jocelyn Roddie are a wonderfully funny Stepmother and Stepsisters. Garrett Bales (Cinderella’s Father), Jenna Gillespie (Cinderella’s Mother / Snow White), and Chelsey Moore (Grandmother / Sleeping Beauty) make the very most of their smaller roles. I particularly liked Peter F. A. Liebold VI’s quirky work as a one-armed ever-victimized Steward. Cynthia Bassham has just the right booming voice for the Giant’s off-stage lines, and Caitlin Lushington, Kayla Navarro, and Sabrina Schloss do marvelously as the mysterious trio of Snow Elves. As Milky White, Hallie Mayer proves that you can steal scenes inside a cow suit.

Finally, there’s the stupendous Courtney Stokes as the Witch, taking one of the most challenging roles in musical theater and not only acing it, but making it thrillingly her own. Pre-transformation, Stokes isn’t afraid to go over-the-top. ( love the way she Witch-sings “Our Little World” instead of singing it legit, as it is usually done.) Post transformation, she captures all of the Witch’s glamorous diva-ness and sings “The Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen” to powerful perfection.

Musical director Daniel Gary Busby conducts a Broadway-caliber fifteen-piece orchestra, something you won’t find in any intimate theater setting. Melody Brocious’s costumes have just the right fairy tale look. Benjamin Weill’s lighting works magic on Liu’s scenic design. Noelle Hoffman deserves kudos for a sound design which expertly mixes voices and instruments and fills the theater with surround-sound booms and crashes. Ian Munro is dramaturg. Amanda Ruccuzzo is production stage manager.

Those who’ve never seen Into The Woods before will find UC Irvine’s production a great introduction to Sondheim and Lapine’s magical, mysterious, thought-provoking tale. Into The Woods lovers like this reviewer will relish seeing a favorite show done right, and with enough imaginative touches to make it seem fresh and new. All in all, for rookies and veterans alike, there are ample reasons to take this journey Into The Woods.

UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.

–Steven Stanley
November 18, 2010
Photos: Paul Kennedy

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