Orlando-UCF Shakespeare opens its new season with a spectacular, complex and challenging production of Stephen Sondheim's symbolic pseudo-fairy tale, Into the Woods. The woods are wild, but that's where we must venture to grow and find answers.

The story begins with the stereotypical quests that fill Mother Goose and Le Morte D'Arthur. A curse dooms the Baker (T. Robert Pigott) and his wife (Heather Lea Charles) to a childless life until the neighboring Witch (Thursday Farrar) reveals the complicated recipe for successful impregnation. The curse derives from the Baker's father, who deflowered the Witch's garden years ago. Now the Baker must collect a blood-red cape, hair yellow as corn and a golden slipper from a girl whose mother is a living tree, then run all this through a milky-white cow. This nice mix of pagan and Christian rituals fertilizes the Bakers and returns the Witch to her youth while stripping her of supernatural power.

The quests of Jack for wealth, Cinderella for social status and Little Red Riding Hood for vengeance all turn to ashes, as they've now eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and been cast from the idyll of innocence into the struggle of adult life. Even the Narrator (Kristian Truelsen) dies, leaving behind the Mysterious Man. Alone and facing an attack by giants, everyone must find their own way as authority not only cannot be trusted but no longer even exists. It's all pure Joseph Campbell, though it's not essential to understand the academian's theories on mythology and culture in order to enjoy this brilliant production.

There are nearly two dozen fairy tale characters in constant motion, led by the Witch and her LED-powered magic staff. When she loses the warts, she loses the supernatural powers, but she MIGHT still get ahead on looks alone. As Pigott's boyish charm makes the Baker's desire for fatherhood sincere, it also makes his fall into sin even more shocking. He does get a charming duet with his wife, "It Takes Two," which is a highlight of the show, as well as the pivot that points us from the playroom to the boardroom.

Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival
Through Oct. 8
(407) 447-1700

Another strong performance comes from Robby Sharpe as Jack, who sings quite well for a simple-minded cowherd, and the audience loved his best friend, Milky White, the nonspeaking pantomime cow played by the uncredited Liam Scahill. Exceedingly tall Kristian Truelsen was impish and engaging as Narrator and Mysterious Man, and Melissa Mason stomps around emphatically as prissy Little Red Riding Hood.

As with most Sondheim shows, the music is well-written but requires concentrated thought to follow. Songs really do serve the plot rather than tickle the ear, but the best number by far was "Agony," sung by the two princes of irresponsible imperial government, Ariel Heller and David Kelley. The second-act musical high point came with "Your Fault," a classic paean to finger-pointing rendered by Jack, the Baker, LRRH, the Witch and Cinderella.

Rolling trees and moody lighting from designers Bert Scott and Joseph Oshry give the audience something to look at during the occasional set shifts, and the Giant's arm crashing down in the second act was a fun surprise. There's even a big laugh when the Wolf (Steven Lane) gets disemboweled and LRRH and her grandmother crawl out of the entrails.

With its mix of Christian and pagan motifs, Broadway music and folk tales, this lesson on adulthood isn't just for grown-ups. Behind each story is an entire world of morals and values. No matter how happy you are ever after, come Monday you have to get up, put on a tie and act nice.

Where's the magic in that?

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