Venturing into the woods at Whitemarsh Park leads to Bowie Playhouse, where 2nd Star Productions is offering a magical version of Into the Woods.
Nothing is quite what it seems in this surprisingly current 20-year-old musical, in which familiar fairy tale characters assume adult dimensions to deal with a threatening environment they have helped to create.
In playwright James Lapine's woods, we find characters that seem funnier, scarier and sexier than remembered, with Red Riding Hood and the wolf, a prince for Cinderella and another for Rapunzel, Jack of the beanstalk story and his mother, and a witch - all interacting with the childless baker and his wife.
The couple wants a child, and the witch wants her youth and beauty restored - so the baker and his wife must find a white cow, yellow hair, a gold slipper and a red cape for her before they can expect a child.
By the end of the first act, all the characters have what they wished for, but happily ever after is only the beginning of everybody's problems, as explored in the second act.
Couple Steven Sondheim's haunting music with his brilliantly ambivalent lyrics, and you move to 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."
Under the direction of Jane B. Wingard, assisted by music director Donald K. Smith and his pit players, 2nd Star's production creates magic of its own. The fabulous set fully utilizes the depth of the stage to create extensive woods that welcome and threaten with strange creatures and looming storms, all brought to life by Garrett Hyde's artful lighting and state-of-the-art special effects.
In this musical - in which everyone's fate is interwoven - skilled ensemble acting is essential, as is the ability to establish the essence of each principal. This cast easily met both requirements.
As the witch who is transformed from grotesque to gorgeous, Christine Asero not only conjures up the fearsome old witch but also creates a cool pragmatic survivor whose vulnerability is her love for daughter Rapunzel.
Asero's witch becomes an overprotective mother as she begs Rapunzel, "Stay with me. Who out there would love you more than I? Stay with me - the world is dark and wild." Later, Asero brings a diva's operatic importance to "Last Midnight."
Raised to "be charming, not sincere," the twin princes - Danny Milne as Rapunzel's and Greg Bosworth as Cinderella's - add swagger and wit, leaping fearlessly like ballet masters and displaying fine singing voices in a hysterical duet, "Agony."
Bosworth also does double duty as the dangerously seductive, voracious wolf.
As the narrator, Garry Seddon keeps the action moving while adding a few dramatic surprises as the mysterious man.
Several other outstanding actor-singers include Pamela Day, who displays a lovely singing voice and gives substance to her portrayal of Cinderella; Ryan Patrick, who delivers a fine performance as Jack; and Brian Douglas, who does full justice to his songs while conveying the essential decency of the baker.
As the baker's wife, Nikki Arbiter Murphy gives a polished performance, especially effective after her brief fling with Cinderella's prince.
Cinderella's stepmother, Heidi Toll, and her daughters, Linda Swann (Florinda) and Jennifer Toll (Lucinda), are nastily funny. Towson High School freshman Alice Goldberg as Red Riding Hood cheerfully walks and runs in place, and amuses as she discovers with the wolf "many beautiful things she hadn't thought to explore."
Kudos are due Branda Lock, who came on board during the last stages of rehearsals to play Rapunzel, doing well with the haunting melody she is given to sing and letting down her golden hair with style.
Into the Woods runs Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 30 at Bowie Playhouse in Whitemarsh Park. For information, call 410-757-5700 or visit www.2ndstarproductions.com.