Review: A long but glorious trek ‘Into the Woods’ at VST

“Into the Woods” at the Virginia Samford Theatre. (Photos/Steven Ross)

I love “Into the Woods.”

I enjoy a so-so “Into the Woods,” and I can even tolerate an “Into the Woods” that doesn’t rise to a so-so level.

But when everything comes together – talented actors, eye-popping scenic design, beautiful music, impeccable choreography and comic timing – Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale mash-up can be glorious.

That’s exactly what you get at the Virginia Samford Theatre. Though the show still clocks in at a hefty three hours, it’s three hours of wonderful stuff to look at, listen to and experience.

In that three hours, Sondheim weaves a tale where some of storytelling’s most famous characters intersect. A baker and his wife, desperate to have a child, embark on an effort to gather items to cancel a witch’s spell, and it takes them into a story that involves Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Jack and the beanstalk, and many others. In the first half, they live happily ever after. In the second, not so much, as reality settles in.

It’s Ben Boyer’s fun set that first greets you, which, with his lighting design, combines to give the cast a fun and visually appealing space to work in. Particularly effective throughout the show is a large tree that has fallen, providing the perfect perch for characters to interact on an upper level.

And once the delightful Holly Dikeman takes the stage, setting the stage with, “Once upon a time,” it’s game-on for a stage full of top-notch performers.

VST’s “Into the Woods.”

There’s not a bad performance in the bunch, but tops in my book are Christopher Sams and Kristen Campbell as the Baker and Baker’s Wife. They’re given some of the show’s best songs, and they make the most of it. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a better “No More” from the Baker or “Moments in the Woods” from the Baker’s Wife. (The latter includes some of my favorite Sondheim lyrics: “If life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one,” “Just remembering you had an ‘and’ when you’re back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before.”)

In the central role of the Witch, Tawny Stephens is a delight, not only singing songs like “Last Midnight” and “Stay With Me,” but maybe even more so in the acting department. Her Witch has all of the emotions, and Stephens is spot-on with all of them.

As Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince, Blake West and Lucas Pepke, both of whom have magnificent voices, are so, so funny, too, making “Agony” the standout number it should be.

Alex Pepke is extremely effective in the pivotal role of Jack. They sing the role, including “Giants in the Sky,” beautifully, but they back that up with some mighty fine acting, too. Likewise with Lydia Yates, bringing such humor and emotion to Little Red Riding Hood (her “duet” with the Wolf, played by Nate Blakley, is a highlight).

And there are so many others: Hannah Kuykendall, an exquisite Cinderella; Goldie Hatch, in a multitude of smaller roles, including the voice of the Giant and as Granny; Jan D. Hunter, Leah Luker, Hannah Rice and Andrew Duxbury, hysterically bringing Cinderella’s family to life; Abbie Copus and Virginia Barr, singing the roles of Cinderella’s Mother and Rapunzel beautifully; and Zach Tarwater, memorable in the role of the Steward.

If that sounds like everyone in the cast, it is, a testament to the wonderful casting and direction by Chelsea Reynolds and music direction by Michael King. “Into the Woods” is rarely as funny as it is here – Reynolds makes sure her cast hits every comic moment while also conveying the dramatic tension, a balance other productions of “Into the Woods” don’t always achieve. The music is superb throughout. (King’s talented orchestra includes Jo Ardovino Jr., Maury Levine, Sarah Freed, Lori Ardovino, Mathew Barron, Jeanette Hightower and Collin Zuckerman.)

Jay Tuminello’s sound design makes sure we can hear all of this. Too many productions of this clever musical are spoiled by bad sound design, and it’s near-perfect here.

Add Jared Max Wright’s often clever choreography, costumes by Marilyn Locke and hair and wigs by Laura K. Barnett, and you have an “Into the Woods” that excels in every detail.

I’ll end with one more of my favorite Sondheim lyrics from “Into the Woods.” In the show, it’s beautifully sung by West as Cinderella’s Prince:

“Best to take the moment present as a present for the moment.”

“Into the Woods” is a present, indeed, particularly in this lush production at the Virginia Samford Theatre.

“Into the Woods,” at the Virginia Samford Theatre Feb. 1-18.

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