Liz Cassarino is the standout as the Baker's Wife.
Happily Ever After has never been so fraught with danger, twists of fate, cranky giants, philandering princes and incredibly loquacious songs as it is in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.
The popular musical has found its way into the capable hands at the University Theatre. On Friday it began its run in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre with a visually spectacular, aurally accomplished production that had only a few minor missteps along the way.
The story follows a fleet of familiar fairy tale characters, including Little Red Ridinghood, Jack of beanstalk fame, the wicked witch, Cinderella and a couple of charming prices. Only in this kingdom far, far away all of their stories are interconnected, and conflicts aren't as easily resolved as they are in the Grimm or Disney versions of the tales.
While all the characters struggle to deal with the consequences of their wishes, or with making life or death decisions, or with ticking off a lady giant for killing her husband, playing out in the background are issues that are deeper and more complex than first blush would have you think.
University Theatre tapped the accomplished Tom Littrell for lighting design, and his experience shows in the consistent and beautiful look of both players and set throughout. Equal kudos should go to set designer Aaron Kennedy for putting together a marvelous fable forest, complete with several moving parts and fun visual tricks. The costumes, too, are well conceived and assembled. Each fits its character and is often good enough to make a statement on its own.
The cast is overall very strong and their enthusiasm infectious, with just a few off-pace moments sprinkled throughout the performance. Liz Cassarino is the standout as the Baker's Wife, both for her consistently strong and lovely vocals, and her endearing character work (avoiding any tropes of the overbearing wife). Playing her husband the Baker, Joe Lullo's acting is strong but his somewhat less assured voice suffers from proximity to someone so accomplished.
The other notables are Erica Halverson's wonderfully layered Witch and Joshua David Atkins' flighty but likeable Jack. Between an intensely wordy opening number and several ballads throughout, Halverson wavered only briefly between a display of powerful and impressive vocal chops. And Atkins' Jack has refreshingly subtle comic timing for a part that could all too easily be overplayed and pandering.
On Friday night there wasn't a single cast member who fell down on the job, in fact. The only real weak point came from the Wolf's seduction scene with Little Red. The actor, Bobby Arnold, brought good physicality to the role but the singing was a little lackluster. More than that, the scene direction felt far less assured and consistent than most everything else in the show.
Overall, though, director and choreographer Pam Kriger has adeptly taken a notoriously unwieldy show and created an almost perfectly synchronized puzzle. Despite a few, small wrong turns along the way, every piece -- from the superb orchestra, to set, to actors -- fits well with the next and becomes a highly entertaining night of theater.