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Melinda Pfundstein (left) as Baker’s Wife and Brian Vaughn as Baker in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of "Into the Woods." Courtesy Karl Hugh/Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014
Utah Shakespeare’s ‘Into the Woods’ draws life lessons from a tuneful pastiche of fairy tales
Review » USF’s excellent production speaks to the head as well as the heart.
First Published Jul 07 2014 11:24 am • Last Updated Jul 28 2014 10:52 am

Cedar City • It seems like serendipity that the Utah Shakespeare Festival is staging "Into the Woods" this season. Woods are a meaningful metaphor in Shakespeare’s comedies, a place where characters go to learn more about themselves and overcome obstacles in their lives. They emerge with new confidence and awareness.

Something similar happens in this excellent, eloquent production of "Into the Woods." Act I assembles an assortment of fairy-tale characters and sends them into the woods on a series of adventures. The Baker and his Wife’s quest to undo the witch’s curse by finding a cow white as milk ("Jack and the Beanstalk"), cape red as blood ("Little Red Ridinghood"), hair yellow as corn ("Rapunzel") and slipper pure as gold ("Cinderella") links the stories.

At a glance

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Utah Shakespeare Festival’s knockout production of “Into the Woods” is an entertaining complement to the Shakespeare plays at this season’s festival.

When » Reviewed Saturday, July 5; rotating repertory with two other productions Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and afternoons at 2 through Aug. 30.

Where » Randall Jones Theatre, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City.

Tickets » $32 to $73 with discounts for groups, students and seniors. Tickets and information available at 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or www.bard.org.

Tip » On Thursday night, the festival’s actors show off during a weekly after-hours Cabaret show. Proceeds help fund trips by casting directors, agents and artistic directors, in an aim to help USF actors land future jobs. 11 p.m. Thursdays at The Grind Coffee House, 19 N. Main St.; donations at the door.

Running time » Three hours (including an intermission).

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If "Into the Woods" concluded with the stories seemingly resolved "happily ever after," it would be easy to dismiss, in spite of Stephen Sondheim’s clever songs and James Lapine’s ingenious book. But it is the second act — the "once upon a time later" — that gives this musical its emotional power: when the characters return to the woods, when they experience loss, when they are forced to make choices and interact in ways that challenge them, when they discover that to outwit a giant, you have to work together.

Their new sense of family and community is celebrated in the show’s most lyrical song, "No One Is Alone": "Sometimes people leave you/halfway through the wood. /Others may deceive you;/ you decide what’s good/… Do not let it grieve you;/ no one leaves for good/… Things will come out right now./ We can make it so."

Director Jeremy Mann has staged this number beautifully. The Baker (Brian Vaughn) and Jack (James Sanders) sit in a tree upstage while Cinderella (Tina Scariano) and Little Red Ridinghood (Deanna Ott) huddle together downstage, dwarfed by the giant, mysterious trees of Hugh Landwehr’s set.

Other noteworthy numbers are "Hello, Little Girl," where the Wolf (Peter Saide) towers over Little Red and the two do a sprightly dance to Christine Kellogg’s catchy choreography; "It Takes Two," where the Baker and his Wife (Melinda Pfundstein) reach a deeper understanding of each other; "Giants in the Sky," where Jack describes the difficulty of living between two worlds; "Moments in the Woods," where the Baker’s Wife realizes that "no one can live in the woods"; "Last Midnight," where the Witch (Misty Cotton) warns you should be careful what you wish for; and the show-stopping "Agony," where the two princes (Kyle Eberlein and Peter Saide) lament loudly that "the one thing you want/is the only thing out of your reach." The song "Into the Woods" begins and ends the show and repeats throughout, each time with denser lyrics.

Bree Murphy as Jack’s Mother, who alternately scolds and supports, and David Pichette as the Narrator, who irritates the characters by the way he tells the story, stand out in the supporting cast.

"Into the Woods" is challenging to sing, but Michael Gribbin’s sharp, clear musical direction makes every word distinct. Mann fluidly moves characters into and out of the audience. Landwehr’s two-dimensional, cutout set and Bill Black’s vibrant, richly layered costumes look like illustrations from a children’s book. Michael Chybowski’s atmospheric lighting and Joe Payne’s sound design suggest that the unexpected lies just beyond.

"Into the Woods" is Sondheim and Lapine’s most popular show. This well-rounded production reveals why.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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