February 17, 2024 | David Kiley

DEXTER, MI–“Into the Woods” is an enchanting journey that weaves together classic fairy tales into a rich tapestry of humor, drama, and profound introspection. Directed by Matthew Brennan, the story and music from the visionary minds of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine comes to life in a new and fresh production that runs through March 3.

This popular theatrical masterpiece, which is family friendly (though, like most classic fairy-tale stories, there is death) transcends the boundaries of traditional storytelling, taking audiences on an adventure that delves deep into the complexities of human desires, consequences, and the pursuit of happiness.

Set against the backdrop of an expansive forest–interepted for the Encore stage by Brennan, Set Designer Sarah Tanner, Prop Designer Anne Donevan, Lighting Designer Justin Gibson, Sound Designer Chris Goosman and Scenic Painter Kate Vanhorn–the story intertwines beloved characters from various fairy tales, including Cinderella (Ash Moran), Little Red Riding Hood (Sienna Berkseth), Jack (Tsumari Patterson) and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel (Lucia Flowers). The show’s authors created the Baker (Marcus Jordan) and his wife (Jessica Grove) as protagonists who on a quest to have a child. One of the lovely touches to put these timeless characters into the present was the decision to use a modern camper as the home in the woods.

As the Baker and his wife venture into the woods to fulfill their wishes, they encounter trials, unexpected twists, and moral dilemmas that force them to confront their innermost desires and confront the consequences of their actions.

One of the most remarkable aspects of “Into the Woods” is its masterful blending of humor and darkness. The witty and clever dialogue, coupled with the whimsical yet haunting melodies of Sondheim’s score, creates a captivating atmosphere that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the performance. From the hilarious antics of the bumbling Baker and his wife to the chilling encounters with the menacing Witch (Jennifer Horne), every moment written into the expansive story is infused with a perfect balance of light and shadows.

The Witch, who must be played not as a crone, but as a woman trapped in an older skin trying to return to renew herself to a more youthful vigor, and Miss Horne nails her role. Ms. Flowers, too, brings wonderful romantic energy to her Rapunzel.

One of the Encore’s strengths is always assembling an incredible cast of supporting actors. Marcus Calderon as The Prince and The Steward always lights up the stage. Nicholas Kraft as Cinderella’s Prince and The Wolf is appealingly rakish. Gayle E. Martin plays a key, if often silent character as the cow, and she knows exactly how to make the character endearing and funny with no lines. Marlene Inman as Cinderella’s Mother, as well as a Granny fills the roles with more vigor and animation than what is on the page of the script. Dan Morrison is well cast as The Mysterious Man, a kind of specter in the story written in by the playwrights, comes in and out of the action with a cool and, indeed, “mysterious” presence.

As good as the cast is, and as inventive as Brennan’s production is, the real star of this show is the Sondheim music. Music Director Frank Pitts, supported by and directing a nine-piece orchestra, gets wonderful performances from the talented cast. Sondheim has gifted enduring songs like “Children Will Listen,” “Stay With Me,” “Agony,” “Moments in The Woods,” and more. To his credit, Sondheim seldom wrote what we call “stand and sing” songs, songs that seem to be written in a vacuum, outside of the story. Every song and tune here tells part of the story,

Moreover, the cast delivers stellar performances that breathe life into the iconic characters. Ms. Berkseth brings a wry characterization of Red Riding Hood, donning a red leather jacket and speaking her lines with an amusing Gen-Z demeanor. Ms. Grove explores a palette of shades and is both funny and heartfelt, and her vocals are superb. every member of the ensemble shines brightly, contributing to the magic of the production.

Beyond its entertainment value, “Into the Woods” also offers profound insights into the human condition. Through its exploration of themes such as responsibility, sacrifice, and the pursuit of happiness, the musical prompts audiences to reflect on their own lives and choices. It reminds us that every action has consequences, and that true fulfillment often lies not in the fulfillment of our desires, but in the connections we forge with others along the way.

Part of Brennan’s note in the program bears citation. Speaking of the enduring tales the show is based on, he says, “How ‘human’ they must be to continue to resonate. To be told again. To be reimagined. Layer in the current social and political climate where we are having debates about book banning, Critical Race Theory…and whether future generations should be taught [the sometimes] ugly truth about the past and how that effects the past and future, or if we should paint them a ‘happy ever after’ repetition, rhyming…the cycle of a bean plant…and this production took shape.”

In conclusion, “Into the Woods” is a theatrical gem that entertains, and inspires in equal measure. With its captivating storytelling, memorable characters, and timeless themes, it has rightfully earned its place as a modern classic. The Encore’s enchanting journey is not to be missed.