Superb spectacle, excellent ensemble

'Into the Woods' fills the Stern with Sondheim favorite

"Into the Woods," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is arguably one of the most enjoyed and most-produced musicals of the last three decades, having garnered numerous awards and nominations in each of its incarnations, including the latest Oscar-nominated film version with an all-star cast.

It is also, beyond a doubt, one of the more difficult musicals to produce, with demanding vocals and complex staging requirements. Palo Alto Players nevertheless tackles the show with zeal, pulling out all the stops to mount a gorgeous spectacle with a talented cast, sure to satisfy the dedicated Sondheim fan as well as the "Woods" novice.

Sondheim and Lapine conspired in this mash-up of several well-known fairy tales, adding their own modern tale as a connecting device and interpreting the tales' morals for a contemporary audience. A Narrator (Walter M. Mayes) opens the show with the iconic phrase, "Once upon a time," and introduces us to four characters who all express wishes: Jack (Timothy Sanders), who wishes his cow, Milky White (Akemi Okamura or Adrienne Walters) would give milk; Cinderella (Libby Lloyd) who wants to attend the king's festival; and the Baker (Chris Janssen) and his Wife (Elizabeth Santana), who wish for a child.

There's also Jack's Mother (Marisol Soria Urbano), who wishes for gold and wants to sell the cow; and Little Red Ridinghood (Taylor Sanders), who wants bread to take to her Grandmother (Chrissy Brooks) and seeks adventure; and Cinderella's stepmother (Morgan Dayley) and her stepsisters (Sharon Lita and Jenna Levere), who are "fair of face but black of heart," and relish their power over the miserable Cinderella.

We're quickly introduced to the story behind the Baker and his wife's childlessness when their neighbor appears -- a hag of a Witch (Izetta Klein). She reveals that their childless plight dates back to when the Baker's father stole vegetables from her garden, including some special beans, whereupon she cursed him and his offspring and declared that any more children would be hers -- surprising the Baker with news of a sister, who has been raised by the Witch in secret.

Now she insists the Baker help her with a special potion, and if he does, she'll reverse the curse. He must travel into the woods to find and bring her a red cape, a white cow, hair yellow as corn, and a golden slipper.

We already know where some of these items will come from and we soon discover where the others are to be found. The Baker initially sets out by himself, but he's followed by his daring and curious wife, and the action unfolds as all the disparate characters encounter each other in the woods, each in pursuit of their wishes.

Turns out the Witch's daughter is Rapunzel (Jessica Whittemore), she of long yellow hair; and there are two Princes, one to rescue Rapunzel (Drew Reitz) and one to find Cinderella enchanting (Steven Ennis). A Mysterious Man (also Mayes) interferes with the Baker's quest, and a Wolf (also Ennis) interferes with Red. A zealous Steward to the Prince (Mohamed Ismail) deals a fatal blow to the greater good.

Often the characters' wishes prove unattainable, get them more than they bargained for, or go awry in unpredictable circumstance. Ethics are abandoned in favor of expedience; deception and subterfuge may pay off, but also teach hard lessons. By the time the first act ends, it's clear that "Happily ever after" has unpleasant alternative meanings.

But Act One remains steadfastly light-hearted, humorous, and hopeful; it's Act Two that goes into the dark corners of the woods, exploring the flip side of pursuing wishes and the consequences of ambivalent morality and errant parenting. A revenge-seeking Giantess wreaks havoc on the traditional tales, leading us to question simplistic moral statements. As characters try to name who's to blame for their tragedies, the Witch says, "I'm not good, I'm not nice, but I'm right," pointing out the darkness in our own hearts that scrambles morality, levels judgment on others, and leads us down a questionable path. Act Two sobers us up -- be careful what you wish for, be careful what you say and do before delivering a beautiful and touching finale that comes full circle.

It's a long show, and the second act in particular can feel at times like we're getting second-hand philosophy -- too many "lesson" songs, and the show slows down with one ballad after another. But Players does its best to keep the action moving, and the first-rate talent helps immensely.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with superb voices and acting and even dancing skills. Santana stands out as the Baker's Wife, a role she seems born to play; Janssen matches her well as the hapless Baker. Lloyd's Cinderella nicely conveys her character's transitions, with beautiful vocals.

Whittemore shines as the mad Rapunzel, Taylor Sanders shows spunk and comic skills, and Reitz and Ennis are terrific as the dubious princes. Unfortunate miking issues in Act One on opening night plagued Klein's performance, but by Act Two the problem was corrected and she returned full force, showing off her powerful, liquid voice. The entire ensemble deserves kudos for their tireless energy and clarity of purpose.

Patrick Klein not only directed, but also designed the set, one that includes a revolving platform and multiple levels and projections and full use of the Stern house -- it's marvelous, and keeps the action brisk.

Clever and comely costume design by Pat Tyler pulls together the visual thematics in a fantastic, over-the-top, Tim-Burtonesque way, coordinated with Christine Ormseth's fun hair and makeup design to great effect. Lighting by Carolyn A. Foot gives us happy illumination as well as the dark shadows of Act Two. Jennifer Gorgulho's choreography is just enough and just right; and Katie Coleman does an outstanding job guiding her cast and orchestra through the difficult score.

If you're already a Sondheim fan, don't miss this one; if you're wondering what all the fuss is about, this is a great way to find out why this show is so popular.

What: "Into the Woods," presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through May 8, with 7:30 p.m. shows Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Tickets range from $32 to $46.

Info: Go to PA Players or call 650-329-0891.

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