The company of “Into the Woods” at Mount Desert Island High School. Performances this weekend are Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS DOUGHERTY

‘Into the Woods’ is pure magic

At first, I was not exactly enthused when I learned of the Mount Desert Island High School choice for fall musical this year, having seen the play seven or eight times, including the original Broadway production, several high school renditions and a few grammar school show choir efforts.

Cinderella, played by Emily Homer, escapes from the palace. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS DOUGHERTY

But somehow, I forgot what a great play this is and how MDIHS always manages to bring something new and wonderful to their performances.

Directed by Frank Bachman, this production of “Into the Woods” is indeed fresh, new and wonderful.

First, there is a terrific cast, all of whom are completely invested in their various roles, which were lifted by Sondheim from “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”

In this version of those familiar old stories about witches, giants, princesses, magical beans and golden slippers, however, we learn what happens after “happily ever after.”

The high school always has one or two outstanding singers and actors to take on the lead roles, but this show has many lead roles, and the director must have been thrilled when he discovered he had great young performers to fill them all.

There’s Emily Homer, perfectly cast with her delicate beauty and sweet trilling soprano as Cinderella, the girl who learns that her dreams of marrying a Prince Charming are not all they are cracked up to be. As her disappointing and disappointed prince, Desmond Reifsnyder has practically transformed himself into a cartoon character with his posturing, puffery and pompadour, but it works! And we can’t help fall in love every time he appears on stage. His “Agony” duets with Alex Eason, who also does a fine job as Rapunzel’s lovelorn prince, are highlights of the show.

Carolyn Graber as the Baker’s Wife brings both grit and a gorgeous soprano voice to her role as a woman who longs for a child and romance, and not necessarily in that order. Her “No One Is Alone” is heart-meltingly lovely. As her husband the Baker, who doesn’t learn the meaning of a true marital partnership until it’s too late, Emerson Jeffery has the voice and acting chops to bring out the handkerchiefs as he struggles with his failures as a husband and father.

Rapunzel (Brooke Long) and her prince (Alex Eason) celebrate the happy ending of Act I of “Into the Woods” at Mount Desert Island High School. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS DOUGHERTY

As the witch who brews up a whole passel of trouble, Bonnie Snyder makes the greatest transformations in the show. When we first meet her as a bent and twisted, creaky-voiced old crone, she seems small and rather frail despite her malevolent personality. But when she regains her youth and beauty, Snyder seems to grow a foot in stature and assume, well, magical radiance as she unleashes her powerful mezzo soprano voice. She also makes us hate her as she rages about the theft of her vegetables and then weep for her as she pleads for her daughter — a bipolar Rapunzel (Brooke Long) to “Stay with Me.”

Another brilliant performance is given by Claire Shaw, whose insouciant and pugnacious portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood runs throughout the play like a bright scarlet thread. Her perfectly pitched screams when her cape is stolen may have broken a few glasses in the cafeteria. The one costuming flaw must be mentioned here.

While as always, Marilee Marchese’s costumes are a large part of the magic of this show — the wolves, the shimmering ball gowns, the bedazzled princes! — Red’s oversized mob cap obscures some of the actor’s priceless facial expressions.

The family ensemble of Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters also are great fun. Ashley Graves, Lily Crikelair and Rosie Avila move together like a mean-spirited little funeral procession.

Colby Bennoch as Jack brings such conviction to his role that we begin to believe he could love an old cow and slay giants. Alexandra Stavnesli as his long-suffering mom convinces us that, no, he’ll probably mess it up.

“Into the Woods” is more opera than musical in that most of the story is told in the songs, so diction is hugely important. At an age where mumbling can be endemic, these young actors do a beautiful job with both the difficult score and Sondheim’s clever lyrics. Even in the big chorus numbers, the words are rarely lost. Gene Gill’s excellent pit orchestra deserves some credit for this, as they took great care not to overwhelm the singers.

Bachman’s direction is nothing if not fast-paced, and there are some fun dances choreographed by Tami Willis — especially the Wolf’s (Dominic Marino) seductive tango with Red.

As this is a tale about spells and curses, a few special effects might have added a bit more dazzle to the mix.

But this is nitpicking in a show that royally deserved the standing ovation it received Sunday afternoon and is sure to be even better next weekend when it is performed at the Higgins-Demas Theater on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. and twice on Saturday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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