A strange species of magical realism pervades Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a darkly funny musical that mashes up a handful of our most familiar fairy tales into a salty stew of deviant psychology and romantic dissatisfaction. Keeping the outward trappings of the fables intact, Sondheim douses them with the realpolitik of reality. Hence, Cinderella finds her Prince only so-so, Little Red Riding Hood is a snarky brat and Rapunzel, left alone too long in her tower, is a neurotic mess. The musical deconstructs the Disneyfication of Grimm, putting the lie to decades of sugar-spun wish fulfillment.
There is no better company in town to mount this Sondheim classic than Actors Cabaret of Eugene, and no better director to tackle it than ACE veteran Mark VanBeever, who makes this production his swan song after 15 years with the theater. It’s a glorious farewell. From the smoothly choreographed set pieces to the aces-up casting to the rousing musical numbers, Into the Woods bears VanBeever’s stamp all over it — a distinct combination of smarts, humor, technical savvy and that aura of joy which reveals an unflagging love for musical theater.
Sondheim, with his intricate compositions, presents an uncommon challenge for any director, and VanBeever is not only up to it; he owns it, with a confidence and enthusiasm that spreads into every nook and cranny of the production.
Enthusiasm itself casts a sort of spell, and VanBeever’s gusto seems to enchant the show’s entire cast, which plays things just right — never too serious, never too silly. Alexis Myles, previously seen as Ti Moune in ACE’s Once On This Island, is damn near perfect as Cinderella, all street smarts and thwarted hopes. Emily Westlund is a hoot as Riding Hood, transforming this traditional innocent into an entitled teen full of defiant sass. Traci Knights is grand as the Witch, and Zach Ropp and Tony Coslett create great comic chemistry as the princes, a pair of brotherly gallants driven by the insatiable need to pursue every fair maiden. Also good are Tera Ponce (Rapunzel), Cody Mendonca and Melissa Miller (Jack and his mom), Gene Chin and Cindy Kenny (Baker and his wife), as well as Beth Milton, Will Vanderbilt, India Potter and Bryana Smith as Cinderella’s adoptive family.
There seems no better tribute to VanBeever and his tenure at ACE than filling the seats for this lovely production of Into the Woods. It’s the least we can do for this fine artist in our midst.
Into the Woods runs through May 31 at Actors Cabaret of Eugene; $16-$42.95. Visit actorscabaret.org/tickets for tickets.