Theater review: Utah Shakespeare Festival's 'Into the Woods' is robustly performed, enormously enjoyable

Published: Saturday, July 5 2014 4:30 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 10 2014 11:35 a.m. MDT

Deanna Ott, left, is Little Red Riding Hood and Peter Saide is the Wolf in Utah Shakespeare Festivals Into the Woods.

Karl Hugh, Utah Shakespeare Festival

“INTO THE WOODS,” through Aug. 30; Randall L. Jones Theatre, 351 W. Center, Cedar City; $35-$77 (435-586-7878 or bard.org)

CEDAR CITY — Jeremy Mann takes his audiences into the words.

In a seminar with audience members, the director of Utah Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Woods” said the emphasis of his production is on clear storytelling. He indicated that the narrative foundations of James Lapine’s script and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics guided his directorial focus.

As acknowledged during the festival, Sondheim is a contemporary Shakespeare. The product of his third partnership with Lapine is an intricately structured work that builds poignancy by weaving together a variety of storybook tales.

Mann’s “Into the Woods” is enchanting. It is a sumptuous, gold-standard production — lovingly staged, robustly performed and enormously enjoyable. The characters’ overlapping storylines and seemingly unrelated endeavors satisfyingly conclude in a clear warning of the losses that can be suffered when happiness is selfishly pursued.

Mann closely collaborated with music director Michael Gribbin, who skillfully guides the singing actors and the eight-piece orchestra through the infectious melodies and syncopated lyrics.

USF artistic director Brian Vaughn and Melinda Pfundstein, who are married in real life, are leading players and are particularly impressive in their roles.

Playing the Baker, who longs for a child, Vaughn conveys both passion and tenacity that is grounded in reality. He not only fully captures the character’s humor but also wittily expresses a few comic moments not written in the script.

A rewarding tenderness lies beneath the outward consternation in Pfundstein’s performance as the Baker’s Wife. She and Vaughn make “It Takes Two” an appealing duet.

In the Cinderella role, Tina Scariano displays a lovely voice, most notably in her “On the Steps of the Palace” solo. As her nemesis stepmother and stepsisters, Bri Sudia, Natasha Harris and Molly Wetzel have firm understandings of their characters and are delightfully amusing. The same is true of James Sanders as Jack, Bree Murphy as his mother and Deanna Ott as Little Red Riding Hood. As the most droll characters, Sanders, Murphy and Ott are terrific.

The devilishly handsome and abundantly charismatic Peter Saide plays both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince. His overt self-involvement and wild muggings are perfect for the roles. Saide makes the Prince’s illustrious “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” line draw some unexpectedly deep belly laughs. His “Hello, Little Girl” solo and his half of the “Agony” duet are simply wonderful.

Faring less well is Misty Cotton, who is perfunctory as the Witch. And the costume designer did her no favors: Before her curse is reversed, she looks like a walking brown blob, and she wears what appears to be a knockoff of the Jessica Rabbit gown when transformed. The fuchsia is imprudent amid the other richly detailed costumes in earth tones.

Hugh Landwehr’s scenery is inspired by the wood engravings of Gustave Doré (whose famous illustrations of Don Quixote continue to visually define the character), and the concept works amazingly well.

In summary, “Into the Woods” is magnificent. To quote a lyric, this production is “shimmering and lovely.”

Content advisory: Adult situations and mild violence.

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