PlayMakers Repertory Company opened its rousing production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into the Woods on November 8th. The Tony Award-winning musical will run in rotating repertory with PlayMakers’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through December 6th at the Paul Green Theatre on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. Directed by Joseph Haj, PlayMakers’ Producing Artistic Director, with musical direction by Jay Wright, choreography by Casey Sams, and a fine cast, the show delivers on virtually all counts and had the November 11 capacity audience on its feet at the curtain.

Patrons entering the theatre were greeted by Marion Williams’ striking set design, a surreal library complete with two stories of bookshelves and a trio of trees growing out of the wood floor. Scattered about the thrust stage were stacks of books and the miscellaneous items of furniture one might find in a library: a library table, wooden desk chairs, a footstool, even a rolling ladder for accessing the upper level of shelves. The orchestra was situated on the upper level, just visible beyond the bookshelves. Jeffrey Blair Cornell, the Narrator/Mysterious Man, entered the stage a couple of times before the start of the show, puttering about as one might do when looking something up in one’s own library.

Cornell was clad in a non-descript, latter-20th-century suit and tie, foreshadowing Costume Designer Bill Brewer’s wonderful 1950s-era costume designs. From tight-bodiced, full-skirted “New Look” gowns and dresses to cheerleader outfits (complete with saddle shoes) to a Jughead hat and red Chuck Taylors for Jack, the costumes reflected the ’50s atmosphere of hope and innocence that infuses the first act of the play. Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes were clad in glittery tuxedos (purple and gold, respectively, with black lapels and pockets), which perfectly complimented the characters’ schmaltzy, lounge-singer personalities. Only the Witch and the Mysterious Man wore more traditional fairy tale garb. The Witch’s first act dress was a masterpiece – all leaves and roots and stems and vines, in myriad shades of green and brown.

For those not familiar with the musical, Into the Woods is essentially a fractured fairy tale, or rather several fractured fairy tales thrown into the same pot and stirred. The stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk are all woven into the original story of a baker and his wife who are childless and the witch next door who has cursed them. In each of the stories, one (or more) of the characters has a wish, which sends them all into the woods in hopes of making the wish come true. There, the characters become entwined in one another’s stories, and, while the wishes do come true, they are not without cost.

Although largely an ensemble show, certain characters are featured: the Witch, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack. Lisa Brescia‘s Witch was vocally strong, and she had a powerful presence throughout. However, she was more successful as the Witch prior to her transformation; after the transformation, I felt she lost a bit of the “crazy/quirky” edge that I associate with this character. Jeffrey Meanza brought just the right mix of vulnerability, stubbornness and strength to the Baker. Garrett Long’s Baker’s Wife was by turns determined and unsure, brave and kind – Long brought all the elements of the role to life with ease and assurance. Jorge Donoso struck just the right note as the not-very-bright Jack who keeps referring to his beloved cow, Milky White, as “he.” (Side note: I loved the cow.) Caroline Strange was a lovely and believably bemused Cinderella. However, it was Jessica Sorgi as Little Red Ridinghood that stole the show (as this character, when cast well, often does). She brought the perfect blend of childish glee and impetuousness to the character, and her timing was flawless.

Gregory DeCandia and Max Bitar, as Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince, respectively, played their roles with great broad humor and brought down the house with their rendition of “Agony.” (Kudos here for the surprise staging device of this number and its reprise – it was hilarious and was perfectly executed by the princes and their stewards.)

All of the actors possess fine voices, and the orchestra rendered Sondheim’s score beautifully; however, the actors and musicians were not always in sync. There were a number of moments when it was clear that the actors were having trouble hearing the orchestra – always a challenge when the musicians are placed so far upstage – and were behind the tempo. This seemed to improve as the show went on, so I’m sure it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the feedback monitors and mic system.

On a related note: Haj has done a lovely and clever job of staging Into the Woods and moves the lengthy show along briskly and efficiently; however, there were moments when I wish he had given his actors a bit less movement and allowed them to simply plant their feet and sing – Jack’s “Giants in the Sky” and the end of Baker’s “No More” being two examples. Sondheim’s music is such a gift for the ear, and, especially with the latter song, I wanted the opportunity to savor it.

I cannot praise the production values of this show highly enough. Williams and Brewer, along with Lighting Designer Josh Epstein, Sound Designer Robert Dagit, and Puppet Designer Donovan Zimmerman have created a beautifully cohesive environment for the production that succeeds brilliantly on all levels.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has mounted an excellent production of one of Sondheim’s best-loved shows. Once the word gets out, all of the shows for the rest of the run are sure to sell out – as well they should. See the sidebar for details and get your tickets for this and the companion play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – now.