Maddie Paige as Little Red Riding Hood

Black Magic

Into the Woods at Cottage Theatre is dark, funny and beautiful

Imagine several of your favorite fairy tale characters springing into real life and setting out together on a series of elaborate quests. Imagine they are mired in the same petty frustrations along the way as real people. And then imagine doing it all to richly complex and satisfying contemporary music.

That’s pretty much the recipe for the Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Mark Lapine (book) 1987 musical Into the Woods, which opened Friday, Oct. 7, and runs through Oct. 23 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove.

Sondheim’s music — and that of Into the Woods in particular — has a reputation for being difficult to perform, so you wouldn’t be alone in wondering whether a small-town community theater could pull it off. This is an excellent production from the moment the lights come up and the Narrator (D. Matthew Kelty) introduces us to Cinderella (Jaclyn Beck), who wishes to go to the festival; to Jack, of Jack and the Beanstalk, and to the Baker and his wife — all of whom are wishing for something.

Jack, played charmingly by Audriahna Jones, wishes that his milkless milk cow and best friend, Milky White, portrayed by an endearing puppet run by Aislinn Mirsch, might produce milk again and not have to be sold at market. And the Baker (nailed by Kory Weimer) and the Baker’s Wife (Brittany Dreier) wish for nothing more than a child of their own.

That’s when the Witch (Maya Burton) charges them all with a Joseph Campbell-style quest, one that can only be satisfied by going into the woods, where a series of wild adventures awaits as we meet Rapunzel, Prince Charming and a host of other weird characters.

Even more than three decades after it was first performed, Into the Woods has a bright, contemporary feel, growing in part from an occasional hip-hop energy that predates Hamilton and partly from a plot that’s elaborately woven from the familiar fabric of Grimm’s fairy tales.

Mark VanBeever directs and conducts a production that depends heavily on the Broadway original, which you can see for free in a filmed version of the stage show online; Disney made a less compelling film adaptation with Meryl Streep in 2014. VanBeever also designed the set, which is simple but effective, and is credited as music engineer in the program.

One significant difference between this production and the Broadway original actually required detailed negotiation with Music Theatre International, which owns and licenses the rights to the show. VanBeever sought — and received — permission to add an ensemble of half a dozen actors to the named cast members on stage. The main reasons given to MTI were that because of the possibility of COVID infection to the cast, Cottage Theatre wanted understudies for the 18 named parts to stay familiar with the show. An email from the theater to MTI also notes that including more performers onstage would add to its mission as a teaching theater. The final agreement allows the ensemble so long as its members do not take any lines from the named characters.

Such complexities aside, the addition of the ensemble is very effective, amplifying some of the musical passages with extra voices, adding a few dance routines and smoothing out some of the set changes.

This is a long show, running nearly three hours. Act I is almost a complete play in itself; a man sitting near me exclaimed, “You mean it’s not over?” when he realized the house lights had come up only for intermission. Act II takes us deeper into the magical darkness of this fairy tale world, a land of giants and giant violence. Go see this show if you like to wake up in the morning still entranced and mystified by that play you saw last night. ν

Into the Woods runs through Oct. 23 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove. Tickets and more info at Sunday matinees are already sold out throughout the show’s run.