Into The Woods is back big time, its long-awaited film adaptation joined by a couple of recent, much lauded out-of-town imports at the Old Globe and the Wallis Annenberg, community theater productions galore, and now by the supremely talented students who’ve been starring in, directing, and designing one terrific intimate revival after another at USC over the past eight years, the musical theater stars of the future who call themselves Musical Theatre Repertory.

3 In the nearly thirty years since Into The Woods got its Old Globe World Premiere in 1986, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s magical musical has captivated audiences with its clever juxtaposition of a first act that ingeniously combines some of the best loved of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a post-intermission “To Be Continued” that explores with considerable depth what happens after “happily ever after,” resulting in a show which retains its freshness and originality three decades after it first dazzled Broadway audiences.

6 Lapine’s book 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.

7 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 One curtain line 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.”).

USC junior Allison Aoun makes her MTR directorial debut with Into The Woods, and an noteworthy debut it is. Rather than re-invent the Sondheim-Lapine classic, the imaginative Aoun pays tribute to the writers’ original concepts while inspiring her student actors to create fresh new takes on roles that have been done and done again, the result of which is an Into The Woods that delights even those like this reviewer who’ve been there, done that umpteen times. (In my case, this is my 16th trek “to Grandmother’s house,” not counting the Original Broadway Cast video and the Rob Marshall flick.)

Cole Cuomo once again anchors a USC/MTR musical (as he has more than half a dozen times before) with a gorgeously sung, deeply felt star turn as The Baker opposite a promising, lovely voiced Maxine Phoenix as The Baker’s Wife, no frumpy housewife this time round but a woman with inner fires just waiting to be set ablaze.

4 Bella Hicks unleashes her inner sorceress/diva as The Witch, playing the role with such unrestrained flair that her performance more than matches many a professional Witch from productions past.

Rebecca Mellinger’s Red Ridinghood is not only spunky as can be, she has a heart as big as the character is “Little,” The Wolf and Red’s “Hello Little Girl” given Hollywood Movie Musical song-and-dance panache by Mellinger and a terrifically seductive Patrick Wallace, who doubles scene-stealingly as a flask-swigging Cinderella’s Father.

An incandescent Carlye Porrazzo gives us a Cinderella any Prince would be overjoyed to have as the girl next door, and sings “On The Steps Of The Palace” with the best of them.

2 Kalev Rudolph, so unforgettable in last fall’s Floyd Collins, gives Jack precisely the quirky charm to make the Beanstalk Boy an audience favorite, complemented by the maternal warmth embodied by the marvelous Emily Hunter as Jack’s Mother.

5 Selene Klasner (Florinda), Brooke Lewis (Lucinda), Francesca O’Hern (Rapunzel), Sanford Reed (Cinderella’s Prince), Carter Shults (Rapunzel’s Prince), and Sarah Withers (Cinderella’s Stepmother) all do fantastic work, with special snaps to Shults’s Fantasyland’s Next Top Model Prince and the AbFab-ulous Withers taking what can be relatively throw-away roles and making them two of the evening’s most unforgettable. (Reed and Shults’ “Agony” and its reprise prove every bit the show-stoppers they are meant to be.)

Director Aoun divides the Narrator and Mysterious Man (usually played by the same actor) between two splendid performers, a decision which allows Massimo Napoli to narrate with just the right objectivity and Chris Wodniak to give us a Man every bit as suave as he is Mysterious.

Completing the cast in niftily drawn cameos are Molly Chiffer as both Cinderella’s Mother and Little Red’s Grandmother and Maurice Welch as a deliciously snooty Steward. Mary-Joan Negro voices the Giant with just-right menace.

Anthony Lucca once again excels as music director and as conductor of the production’s pro-caliber orchestra—Lucca on piano, Max Bergmanis on synthesizer, Jordan Bidwell on bassoon, Austin Chanu on flute and piccolo, Edward Evans on trumpet in C, Logan Kane on bass, Doyeon Kim on violin, Connor Malloy on percussion, Austin Shaw on cello, Elena Sloman on oboe and English horn, and Henry Soloman on clarinet.

Scenic designer Liam Sterbinsky’s woodsy set allows our imagination to fill in the blanks, though one rather obstructive tree did tend to get in Milky White’s way on opening night, Sterbinsky’s design enhanced by Justus Bradshaw’s excellent lighting. Sound designers Stephen Jensen and Danielle Kisner do topnotch work as well, the cast’s unamplified vocals never overpowered by the show’s eleven-piece orchestra. Last but not least are Marly Hall’s imaginative bevy of fairy tale costumes, though I would have given Hicks an Act Two gown fit for a Hollywood red carpet rather than the rather frumpy feathered concoction chosen here.

Additional kudos go to assistant director Taubert Nadalini, makeup designer Meredith O’Gwynn, properties master Savannah Harrow, technical director Haley Miler, assistant music director Clint Blakely, assistant set designer Zach Blummer, assistant lighting designer Alex Rehberger, and assistant properties master Kat Brannan-Williams.

Jessica Major is stage manager. Harrow is assistant stage manager.

USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory has already proven the springboard to professional success (including Broadway itself) for numerous MTR alumni, just one reason to catch these up-and-comers while they’re still close to home. That MTR’s Into The Woods easily competes with many of our finest 99-seat-plan productions ought to seal the deal. These are Woods into which any musical theater lover—Sondheim aficionados in particular—ought gladly to venture.

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Massman Theatre at USC.

–Steven Stanley
January 22, 2015

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