'Into the Woods' with an enchanting tale at Annapolis Summer Garden

An enchanted evening can be found by entering Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre to go "Into the Woods" — where nothing is quite what it seems, and fairy-tale characters interact in unexpected ways.

This groundbreaking 1987 musical was written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, and Annapolis Summer Garden offered a magical outdoor production in 2001. The sardonic, sophisticated tale is even better this time around for the troupe.

Music is paramount in this show, and the score for "Into the Woods" is well interpreted by music director Trent Goldsmith, who leads the ensemble in a near-flawless delivery of Sondheim's challenging work. The composer was once quoted as describing the score as "structurally one big song. The melodic material consists of fragmentary rhythmic and catchy phrases that weave in and out."

In this production, Goldsmith clearly understands Sondheim's musical tapestry.

Couple the haunting music with Sondheim's brilliant lyrics, and you move into a new realm — "Into the woods, where nothing's clear, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear, into the woods and through the fear, you have to take the journey."

From this opening, the chorus signals to the audience that it's in for a rare treat. Singers give every clever word of Sondheim's lyrics strong enunciation, and soloists emerge to offer signature tunes such as "Agony," sung by Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince.

Ruby Griffith Award-winning director Darnell Morris guides this production with his own wizardry, including innovative casting that has a boy of only 10 years as Narrator. Andrew Sharpe brings a child's innocence, imagination and wonder to the role.

Morris also serves as set designer, creating a forest that intrigues, frightens and invites us. A two-level open structure permits the entire 20-member ensemble to gather for major musical numbers while alternately serving as various dwellings of the Baker, the Witch, and Beanstalk Jack and his mother.

Fairy tale characters are funnier and scarier than remembered: Red Riding Hood finds "many beautiful things she hadn't thought to explore" with the rapacious Wolf; the Baker and Wife want a child; the Witch wants her youth and beauty restored.

By the end of the first act, characters have what they wished for, but happily ever after arrives too soon, and the second act finds them beset with other problems, including a vengeful Giant's widow and an unfaithful Baker's Wife.

The story is told mostly through song, and the cast is up to the challenge. The troupe features excellent singer/actor Scott Gaines as the Baker and equally skilled Malinda Markland as his Wife. Markland later reveals another dimension of her acting skills in the scene where she is seduced by Cinderella's Prince.

Another vocal standout is Sarah Treanor as a lovely Cinderella. Her mean-girl stepsisters — Erika Knepp as Florinda and Amy Harrison as Lucinda — keep us laughing while appearing oddly stylish in their steampunk costumes.

Lauren Winther-Hansen is a beguilingly precocious Red Riding Hood, sending a veiled message to the Wolf's "Hello, Little Girl" and later delivering an interesting and reflective "I Know Things Now."

Stealing every scene she enters is Katrina Ellen Sillaman as the fearsome Witch who is transformed into a young, delectable seductress and creates a memorable moment in the song, "Last Midnight." Carol Ann Drescher charms as the Witch's daughter, Rapunzel, of flowing golden-hair fame.

Kelston Thomas and Alex Xourias add notable dash as the respective princes of Cinderella and Rapunzel. A standout vocally, Thomas also plays the Wolf. Another outstanding singer is Harrison Smith as Beanstalk Jack, and his mother is well played by Cristina Shunk.

Innovative choices of director Morris and the skill of music director Goldsmith's Sondheim interpretations add up to an inspired evening for theater-goers. Add to this a cast brimming with fine actors interpreting this philosophical fairy tale, and you have a not-to-be missed production.

"Into the Woods" continues through Sept. 1, Thursdays through Sundays, at 8:30 p.m., at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. For tickets, call the box office at 410-268-9212.

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