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Actors lead OST audience 'Into the Woods'

OKOBOJI, IOWA -- A spirited cast gifted with lovely voices delivers a quality production of lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" at Okoboji Summer Theatre (OST) this week.

In its first-ever presentation at OST, and as a cap to the theater's 52nd season, "Into the Woods" offers much for theater patrons to enjoy -- a lush, forested set, colorful and varied costumes, imaginative makeup and hair design and a great bunch of lead actors who bring to life tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming and Jack and the Beanstalk on their personal journeys to a happily ever after.

Despite this musical being one of the much-decorated Sondheim's most popular, some attendees could be overheard at intermission saying they found the show "a little unusual."

Indeed, Sondheim's music, which often includes polyphonic voices and unique harmonies, can be an acquired taste, but it's easy to relax into poignant and tuneful numbers such as "No More," "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen" that are heard later in the production (more along the lines of his early 1970s hit "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music").

"Into the Woods," with book by James Lapine, shares a behind-the-scenes look at an intermingling of fairytale characters' "real" lives. Is Cinderella really so happy to be chased by her prince and then kept safely in the castle thereafter? Does Little Red Riding Hood mind being tempted by the wolf on her way to grandmother's house?

What if Rapunzel's father and brother were cursed with infertility by the witch from whose garden they stole? And is the witch such a bad mother to Rapunzel after all, or is she really just a lonely person protecting her adopted daughter in the best way she knows how?

Lapine created two central characters -- the Baker and his wife -- to help weave together the several story lines. OST alumnus Kyle Groff sympathetically plays the Baker, and Sarah Casey is a most capable Baker's Wife. The couple desire a child, but because of the witch's curse on the Baker's family due to the whole Rapunzel episode, they are barren -- unless they can come up with four key items that, in turn, will aid the witch in helping make her wish come true.

As Jack, of beanstalk fame, Stephens College student Alex Herrera charms with his earnest, innocent face and bell-clear tenor voice, especially apparent on "Giants in the Sky." His mother, played by Kiely Schlesinger, is equally adept at both acting and vocals and not at all afraid to throw herself into the part of a harried, weary peasant woman, which only adds to her depiction.

Guest actor John Watkins had the crowd roaring in his over-the-top -- and therefore quite terrific -- turn as the stalking, sexy wolf who hungrily hunts Little Red Riding Hood.

"Red," as the latter comes to be called, nearly stole the show every time she was on stage. Portrayed by a most energetic and elastic-faced Rachael Rogers, Red has a Kewpie doll, Shirley Temple-like appeal, complete with bouncing corkscrew curls, huge round eyes and dimples.

Rogers is a dynamo, skipping and pirouetting constantly, delivering her many lines and songs in an expressive voice and never ceasing to be entertaining, no matter how many times one looks her way.

When Rogers trills, "Scary is exciting, and nice is different than good," and "Isn't it nice to know a lot -- and a little bit ... not," one can't help but smile at her awakening from oblivious innocence.

Other notable actors include the two princes (Michael Richardson and Charles Evans, who joined Groff and Herrera in OST's "Forever Plaid" earlier this season), Gwen Wotawa as the witch and OST veteran Rob Doyen as the narrator/mysterious man.

Judging from the applause at the Tuesday night performance's conclusion, the full-house audience joined this critic in feeling less enthusiastic about Cinderella (Amber Hurd) and her step-family entourage, as well as about Rapunzel (Amanda Riley).

Hurd is attractive and has a nice voice but simply isn't as emotive or energetic as others mentioned above, while Riley's take on Rapunzel was a bit too silly.

Local theater fans may remember Worthington High School's 2006 production of "Into the Woods," which this reviewer would venture to say compared quite favorably with OST's show (though understandably the OST actors, being all at least college-age performers if not theater professionals, show more polish overall).

OST recommends "Into the Woods" for "pre-teens and older," but many adults were joined on Tuesday night by children who appeared as young as 6. The youths in the company of this reviewer loved the show, understood the humor and story twists and delighted in the more extreme characterizations.

One child got a particular kick out of Cinderella's father, played by Matthew McAndrews, because he reminded him of Lurch from "The Addams Family," while another likened the second act to the last of the Harry Potter books, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," because "everybody gets killed."

Or, in the wise words of Sondheim, "Wishes come true -- not free."

"Into the Woods" runs at OST through Sunday.