Fairy tales conjure up thoughts of youth. We read them as children; they relate the stories of impressionable young ladies and men. So maybe that explains the extra dash of magic in UCF Conservatory Theater's production of "Into the Woods."
Watching a college-age cast tell the familiar tales with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's twists breathes fresh air into these woods, and director Kate Ingram has created a lush fairy-tale environment straight out of a storybook.
"Into the Woods" intertwines the tales of Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, as they interact with a baker and his wife. The first act ends with the characters at their "happy ever after," but the darker second act takes them beyond their stories to look at parenting, wish fulfillment and consequences.
The Narrator (Trevin Cooper) sets the first act's effervescent tone right from the start with his jubilant "Once upon a time!" and from there Ingram's production fizzes with fun.
Vandy Wood's enchanting set features homes for the Baker and Jack on either side of the stage. But the center is for the woods. A tangled mass of trees on a scrim blocks the orchestra, whose volume, phrasing and dynamics were spot on at a Saturday performance. On stage, performers carry poles topped with fluttering fabric, suggesting vines and other murky foliage. This is a dynamic woods, moving and shifting.
Against this visual treat, enhanced by Bert Scott's moody lighting and complemented by Grace Trimble's storybook costumes, the actors land laugh after laugh and skillfully navigate Sondheim's complex songs.
Everyone in the large cast gets it right. As Baker, Josh Wise is amiably unsure (and displays a beautiful tenor), Kelly Kilgore as his wife is his equal opposite, fiery and determined. Julie Frost is a stitch as hungry Little Red Riding Hood, baby faced with a grownup's attitude. Benjamin Smith is goofily frenetic as dim-bulb Jack, never more so than when he's acting with the ingeniously cute puppet playing his beloved cow.
Lauren Butler brings some welcome grit to Cinderella, and comically modulates her voice to sappy princess mode when she talks to her feathered friends. ("You talk to birds?" Little Red asks incredulously.) Vicky DiSanto walks the clever tightrope crafted for the Witch with aplomb: Is she nasty or just plain-spoken?
But the best moments are with the smarmy princes (David Paul Kidder, Mickey Bahr), so convinced of their dashing qualities, there's no room for doubts in their perfectly coiffed heads. With ringing plummy voices, impossibly arched eyebrows and oily grins, they gallop through their comic duet "Agony."
With such a romp through the first act, the more somber second seems a bit jarring. And, here, some of the finer character shadings are missing: The restlessness behind the pomposity of Cinderella's Prince, for example, or the fear under her Stepmother's fierce façade.
When Baker's Wife makes a moral transgression, her desperation and subsequent repentance aren't as obvious as they should be, though Kilgore gives a lovely rendition of "Moments in the Woods."
There's also a hurried feel to the play's end that brushes over what should be some of the most emotional moments: the tragedy of the Baker's Wife, the reunion of Baker with his son.
Yet a delicious air of inevitability hangs over the proceedings; there's never a sense of "what happens in the woods stays in the woods." Instead, we see that the choices made in the woods, in our lives, affect everyone around us. It's a valuable lesson to learn, and at UCF a most entertaining one.
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See for yourself
•What: UCF Conservatory Theater production of 'Into the Woods,' a musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
•Where: UCF Main Stage Theater, off University Boulevard and Alafaya Trail at University of Central Florida
•When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 3
•Tickets: $19; $17 seniors; $12 students