Itw 68 the cast of into the woods photo credit   os galindo qcf4ok

Image: Os Galindo

Weave together your favorite fairy tales, and you have the premise of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1986 musical. But add the Theatre Under the Stars' superb cast, exquisite sets and vivid costumes, and Into the Woods gets a life of its own.

Drawing on famous characters, like Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, Lapine’s book intersects well-known fairy tales into the narrative of a baker (Jim Stanek), his wife (Stephanie Gibson) and their desire for a child. They get their wish, but not without the Herculean task of obtaining rarities, like golden hair and a milk-white goat, which leads them—literally and figuratively—into the woods.

Although there is grief and tragedy in these interweaving tales, Sondheim and Lapine offer plenty of comic relief, like the surprising (and hilarious!) rescue of Little Red Riding Hood (Kally Duling) that garnered many laughs. There is also a revelation that the narrator might have another identity, with such cleverness marking most of the production. 

Itw 50 kally duling as little red riding hood  jeremy hays as the wolf  susan shofner as granny and jim stanek as the baker  photo credit   os galindo adlyl4

Kally Duling as Little Red Riding Hood, Jeremy Hays as The Wolf, Susan Shofner as Granny and Jim Stanek as The Baker in TUTS's Into the Woods.

Image: Os Galindo

Standout performances include Cinderella (Britney Coleman) and Rapunzel (Jillian Gottlieb), along with their respective Princes, played by Jeremy Hays and Nick Bailey, who are also brothers in the musical. Bailey played Rapunzel’s suitor with aplomb, as his physical movements wonderfully reflected the regal demeanor of a prince. Hays plays Cinderella's convincingly charming Prince (as well as the smarmy Wolf). Even when he cheats on Cinderella, it's difficult to be mad at him. Both Bailey and Hays have memorable and soaring voices that worked well, both individually and in tandem, when they were on stage together. Other outstanding supporting roles include Cinderella's wicked stepsisters (Mary Claire King and Courtney Markowitz) and stepmother (Laura Jordan), who worked well as a trio. 

But audiences won't forget Emily Skinner as The Witch, the stand-out performance of the evening. With an uncanny sense of timing and physical comedy, Skinner’s voice as the angry and abusive witch is sheer perfection. Her transformation into a stunning beauty after striking a deal in which she loses her powers is something to behold.

Although this is a strong cast with a creative storyline and plenty of twists and turns, let’s face it: The Witch is the glue that holds Into the Woods together. Skinner's voice, expressions and physical movements are a delectable cocktail of drama, wit and vocal excellence. Even if you are not particularly enthralled with the reworking of old fairy tales—I can understand not caring to relive Jack and the Beanstalk—it is worth the ticket to see Skinner perform. She is the bar for all of the other performers in the show. Skinner is a Tony nominee, but I imagine she will be a Tony Award winner sooner rather than later. 

With a seamlessly evolving set, creative costumes and soaring voices, Into the Woods delivers stand-out performances that are as impressive as the original fairy tales.   

Into the Woods

Thru Dec 18. From 38.50. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2400. tuts.com

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