Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's outdoor season is off to an enchanting start, taking us "Into the Woods" of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine - a place where nothing is quite what it seems, and familiar fairy tale characters assume adult dimensions.
On Friday's opening night, as if on cue, the rain stopped at the 8:30 p.m. curtain time. But the rains were followed by strong winds that swirled Rapunzel's hair and rippled the burlap curtains. I'm told the weather scenario was repeated Saturday.
I've long admired Sondheim, but I have never seen this show and found it surprisingly current - considering that it first opened on Broadway in November 1987.
When we go into Lapine's woods, we're discovering life with its complexities in a way that is enlightening and frightening. Sondheim's music, seeming so contemporary, underscores what we're experiencing - although it is developed from a single melodic theme.
After seeing the show, I searched on the Internet to find why Rapunzel's tune was the only discernible melody in the score. On one site, Sondheim was 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."
Couple the haunting music with his brilliant lyrics and you move to a whole new realm - as the lyrics put it, "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."
The woods are filled with familiar fairy tale characters that seem funnier, scarier and sexier than remembered, with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, a prince for Cinderella and another for Rapunzel, Beanstalk Jack and his mother, and a witch - all interacting with the childless Baker couple.
The baker and his wife want a child, and the witch wants her youth and beauty restored - so the couple must find a white cow, yellow hair, a gold slipper and a red cape for the witch before they can expect a child. By the end of the first act, all the fairy tale characters have what they wished for, and the baker and his wife have a child, but this happily-ever-after ending has arrived too soon.
Act 2 opens with everyone beset with other problems. The witch has regained her beauty but lost her power, and reveals herself as an overprotective mother who begs Rapunzel, "Stay with me, who out there would love you more than I? Stay with me - the world is dark and wild."
The giant is dead, and his widow is angry. The now-dead wolf showed Red Riding Hood "many beautiful things that she hadn't thought to explore." The baker's wife dies soon after a brief fling with the prince - "have a baker for bread, and a prince for whatever." After his wife's death, the baker "wants no more despair or burdens to bear" as he struggles to raise his motherless child.
At Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, a talented cast of invincible troupers brings this enchanting story to life under the direction of gifted 22-year-old Peter O'Malley and aided by his impressive array of lighting tricks and creative staging.
Music director Anne Rottenborn does well by Sondheim's challenging score. Usually I dislike synthesized music, but it seemed appropriate here.
Two immensely talented singing actors head the cast - velvet-voiced Jeffrey Miller, who couldn't be better as the baker, and Sheri Kay Kuznicki, nearly perfect as his wife. Both clearly enunciate Sondheim's lyrics. Miller and Kuznicki not only have great chemistry, they manage in their duets to convey profound affection for each other, and their characterizations grow.
Rachel Zampelli sings well and gives new dimensions to her Cinderella, and Kristen Kushner is a feisty Red Riding Hood, who enjoys discovering how voracious Reggie Dyson's gorgeous wolf can be.
Sue Centerelli is a delectable young witch, and a fearsome old one. Ed Wintermute is excellent as the narrator, and Ronnie Schronce is an appealing Jack of Beanstalk fame.
Lesley Dillon Batson as Rapunzel does full justice to the one recognizable melody in the score and proved a dauntless trouper opening night, as her hair nearly enveloped her. Other undaunted troupers were Bill Woessner as Rapunzel's prince and Matthew Stevenson as Cinderella's - both adding style and wit and leaping fearlessly like ballet masters, sometimes landing with unintended slides on the rain-soaked slippery stage.
"Into the Woods" runs Thursdays through Sundays through June 23. I plan to return on a clear night and recommend that all theater-lovers do the same.