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OSF's 'Into the Woods' is an unqualified delight

"Into the Woods" is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's summer musical production in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Combine the incomparable music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and a clever book by James Lapine, an inventive production by director Amanda Dehnert and vivid performances by OSF actors, and this "Into the Woods" flirts with perfection.

"Into the Woods" is vintage Sondheim. The music is complex, the lyrics sly and urbane.

The characters in "Into the Woods" follow their dreams — but all actions have consequences, intended or unintended, and not all endings are happy ones.

The centerpiece of the story is a childless Baker and his Wife. They have been cursed by the Witch next door. She reveals that she, too, has been cursed. If the Baker and his Wife bring four items to reverse the curse, she will then grant their wish for a child. The Witch demands "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold."

This leads the Baker and his Wife into the familiar fairy tales of "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel" and "Cinderella." The characters' intertwined quests all take them "into the woods," a metaphor for the complexity of real life, where nothing is quite black and white, but varying shades of gray. Do happy endings always justify the means of achieving them? Is revenge always necessary? Should children always obey parents? Is good always good and evil always evil?

By the end of Act I, everyone gets their wish. The Baker and his Wife (Javier Munoz and Rachael Warren) will have a child. The Witch (Miriam A. Laube) returns to being young and beautiful — but without her magic powers. Cinderella (Jennie Greenberry) gets her Prince (Jeremy Peter Johnson). Rapunzel (Royer Bocus) escapes her tower and marries her Prince (John Tufts).

Little Red Riding Hood (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) escapes the Wolf (Howie Seago). And Jack (Miles Fletcher) recovers his beloved cow Milky-White (Catherine E. Coulson), pleases his mother (Robin Goodrin Nordli), climbs the beanstalk, steals the gold from the magic world above and kills the giant as well. And the mysterious lurking man (Anthony Heald) is explained.

Will everyone live happily ever after? Not quite. There is an Act II.

Remember that giant that Jack killed? He had a wife. She wants revenge. (Think "Bambi meets Godzilla.") And those princely husbands? As Cinderella's prince says, he was raised to be charming, not sincere. Royalty seems to be easily distracted. As Act II unfolds, the characters learn that things are not quite what they seem to be, people are not quite as they appear and we are all in this world together, so we better work things out.

With last year's OSF production of "My Fair Lady" in the Bowmer Theatre and OSF's 2011 production of "Julius Caesar" in the Thomas Theatre, Dehnert showed a predilection to show the audience the "bones" of a show, how it all comes together as a collaborative experience. With "My Fair Lady, she placed musicians in the middle of the stage, had costume changes in full sight, used minimal scenery and props. With "Julius Caesar," she had the cast members casually chatting with the audience pre-curtain.

Dehnert continues the concept with "Into the Woods," cleverly making use of the advantages and disadvantages of staging in the outdoor venue.

She took advantage of the depth of musical and acting talent in OSF's repertory company, using many of her cast from "My Fair Lady."

She placed a 25-piece orchestra, made up of professional and student musicians, onstage, behind the action on the main level and in the gallery above. What appears at first like a concert performance of the play, with lecterns on stage and actors in street clothes wandering about, gradually changes into a fully costumed production as the first musical number, "Into the Woods," introduces the characters. The actors enter and exit via ladders, the "voms" in the audience and the aisles and, in one remarkable entrance by Robin Goodrin Nordli, a bedsheet rope. Dehnert, Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck and Costume Designer Linda Roethke clearly had a lot of fun putting this production together — complete with onstage magic tricks, stuffed birds and tricycles.

"Into the Woods" has all of Sondheim's sardonic observations about pairing off, of parents and children, of situational morality. But it also contains some of Sondheim's most beautiful and heart-wrenching songs — the loss of innocence, of illusions, of loved ones. This OSF production lushly captures it all.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.