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Arizona Repertory makes magic out of 'Into the Woods'

So, what happens after "happily ever after"?

Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods sets into motion a dozen characters who, through fate, effort and a little help from their friends, seem to attain happily-ever-after status. But then he dares to take us beyond the happy ending.

The grand master of musical theater, Sondheim, now 81, has never been able to resist mixing intelligent lyrics and sophisticated music with substantive subjects. The last 50 years of American musical theater would seem pretty thin without Sondheim's Company, A Little Night Music, Follies and Sweeney Todd.

Into the Woods, which danced its way onto Broadway in 1987, is a prime example of Sondheim at his musical-storytelling best. And in a way that reveals the troupe at its best, Arizona Repertory Theatre opened their take on this big, sprawling extravaganza last week.

Ever since Carl Jung and his ilk taught us that things are never quite what they seem, fairy tales, nursery rhymes and dreams have been looked at anew, revealing archetypes, shadow-selves, lessons and cautions. What we have considered to be simple stories—many geared toward children, no less—may actually offer instructions to help us discover who we are.

In Into the Woods, Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book, re-create the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, and then blend their stories with a bad-ass Witch who has locked away Rapunzel and has laid a big ol' curse on a Baker and his Wife, rendering them childless. The characters' wishes and dreams intertwine like the limbs of the dark forest they must enter to find what is required of them to make their wishes come true.

Into the woods,

Without delay,

But careful not

To lose the way.

Into the woods

Who knows what may

Be lurking on the journey?

Director Rob Gretta has assembled a fine cast and an awesome team of production designers and technicians who make this a production with a grandly whimsical scope, alive with vibrant visuals and charming humor. And it's all told with Sondheim's songs, so full of clever rhymes and puns, and sung with great skill and the accompaniment of an impressive orchestra.

In short, this production rocks.

The first act is a long romp. Jack (Patrick Spencer) is sent to sell Milky White (Zachary Jamison), his beloved cow who doesn't produce enough milk. Little Red Riding Hood (Meaghan Sullivan), a sassy, spunky girl, needs to get to her ailing grandmother's house, but would prefer downing the sticky buns she procures from the Baker (Max Nussbaum) and his Wife (Caitlin Kiley). The Witch (Sarah Baron)—a wonderfully dreadful, spite-filled sight—instructs the childless couple that for the hex which is causing their infertility to be lifted, they need to bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. Lapine's choice of fairy tales means it's all there for the bargaining—including those magic beans we've heard so much about. These delicious characters' intricate stories lace the group together in a community which is richly celebrated when they seem victorious in fulfilling their dreams.

But in Act 2, they are humbled, as the consequence of attaining their dreams is a dire state of danger and destruction. It seems that Jack has killed the Giant who dwells atop the beanstalk, and the Giant's wife is p.o.-ed. How will the members of the group, who were so happy in their fortunes, cope with this troublesome turn?

The story is rich with thematic resonances which provoke a serious thought or two even as we are engaged and entertained. You could definitely leave at intermission with a satisfied smile, riding a high of happy-ever-after. But you'd miss the whole story, with its well-wrought complications and pathos that the characters—and the audience members—experience in a none-too-simple world.

This is a difficult, complex and expensive show to tackle, and in most ways, ART gets it right. Gretta grasps the show's heart and soul and has choreographed his team to execute the many theatrical elements required to deliver it all. The young cast admirably embodies their characters. Baron as the Witch, Spencer as Jack, Jennifer Hijazi as Cinderella and Kiley as the Baker's Wife all give skillful performances, as do Sullivan as Little Red Riding Hood and Nussbaum as the Baker. Nikko Kimzin as Cinderella's Prince is wonderfully ego-laden; he and Preston Maguire, as Rapunzel's Prince, combine for several hilarious testosterone-driven moments. And Milky White, performed so sweetly—and athletically—by Jamison is a scene-stealing joy. Most importantly, this is a fine ensemble; everyone contributes capably, which is why the show works so well.

Integral to this fine tale-telling are the design elements. Clare P. Rowe has designed a fanciful and complex set (which still had an operational glitch or two on opening night). Patrick Holt's costumes are wonderful, and Zachary Ciaburri and Matt Marcus have executed solid light and sound designs, respectively. The diligence of a sizable corps of foot soldiers laboring to bring these designs to life deserves enthusiastic praise.

Not everything is perfect. Particularly, the choice to give the narrator an iPad as his source of story notes seems silly—and not in a good way. The orchestra overpowers the singers at times. And the transition involving the Witch at the end of the first act is clunky. But for a show with this scope, these are minor bumps.

The foundation for this fun—Sondheim's music and lyrics, supervised by musical director Monte Ralstin—is where the joy really begins and ends. Standing firm on this foundation, Arizona Repertory Theatre takes us on a fun and thoughtful grand tour Into the Woods.

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