After a curse has been lifted, the Witch (Kira Lace Hawkins) isn’t ugly anymore. Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
After a curse has been lifted, the Witch (Kira Lace Hawkins) isn’t ugly anymore. Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Having only seen the 2014 film version of “Into The Woods” before opening night of the musical Wednesday at the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, I wasn’t prepared to leave happy.

The movie – starring Meryl Streep as the Witch among many other big names – was good, even scoring a few Oscar nominations, but it wasn’t something I’d sit through again (though I did buy the soundtrack for Streep’s rendition of “Last Midnight”). The film didn’t make me feel joyful when it was over.

But the Wagon Wheel production of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine show? I’d definitely go again. I left singing about going “Into the Woods” and “Agony” and the “Last Midnight.” After the show was over, everyone who sat around me and that I walked by as I left was buzzing about how glad they were that they saw it and two thumbs up and what a gem the Wagon Wheel is to have in Warsaw. If there was an unhappy person after the show, they weren’t anywhere near me.

The musical had its intense moments, but it also had plenty of laughs – especially scenes involving Ben Ahlers as the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince and Allsun O’Malley as Little Red Riding Hood – but there was plenty of hilarity to go around.

The full cast is beyond exceptional, and Artistic Director Scott Michaels has given audiences a perfect gift for the end of the regular summer season. The set is beautifully elaborate, the costumes are divine, the music dances in the ears and the cast should be extremely proud of their performance.

The plots of several well-known fairy tales are woven in the musical, including “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella.” The show is tied together through the story of the childless Baker and his wife and their journey to becoming parents. That’s the simplest synopsis for the show. There’s plenty of themes and metaphors buried in the show, all the more reason to go see it multiple times.

Playing the Baker is Riley McFarland, who has become one of my favorite actors to watch this season. He was Snyder in “Newsies,” Clive Paget/John Jasper in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” The Hermit in “Young Frankenstein” and amazing as John Proctor in “The Crucible.” McFarland once again delivers a great performance as the Baker, bringing his trademark intensity to the role. You can hear his professionalism in his voice and see it in his gestures and body language, but it shines brightest in his face. If his performance was in a movie, you’d want to pan in on his face, especially for the number “No More” in Act II.

Playing the Baker’s Wife is Kelly Britt, who audiences will remember as Rebecca Nurse in “The Crucible” or Rosa Bud in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Britt gives her best performance this summer though in “Into The Woods.” Her strong performance gives those around her something real to play against and she doesn’t let go.

While she played McFarland’s wife in “The Crucible,” for this show Kira Lace Hawkins is his nemesis, the Witch. Even under the makeup and prosthetics, Hawkins is flawless. If you didn’t know it was her under there, Hawkins does such a great job with her performance that you would never guess it was one of Wagon Wheel’s greatest actresses.

You have to wait until almost the end of the show for Hawkins to belt out “Last Midnight,” but when she does, it’s like opening presents on Christmas morning. I think Streep and Bernadette Peters would stand and give Hawkins a big round of applause. But even before that song, Hawkins delivers a mesmerizing performance of “Witch’s Lament.” Children should listen to Hawkins sing.

Another actor who has become one of my favorite to watch this season is Ahlers. He has been in every show this season, but he really broke out as Igor in “Young Frankenstein” and showed his dramatic chops as the Rev. Parris in “The Crucible.” Playing two roles in “Into The Woods,” Ahlers seems like he’s having a ball with both of them and that means fun and laughter for the audience. Ahlers is more fun than a barrel of monkeys to watch.

Ahlers plays the Big Bad Wolf so much better than Johnny Depp did in the movie version. Ahlers’ wolf is the ultimate metaphor for male swagger, and Ahlers keeps that up as Cinderella’s Prince. The Prince is a Lothario who, as the character says himself, was taught to be charming but not sincere. Ahlers plays that convincingly while all the meanwhile keeping the audience laughing.

When Cinderella’ Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (Michael Bradley) performed the number “Agony” together, a woman next to me said, “They’re so funny!” I couldn’t agree more.

Go see the Wagon Wheel’s production of “Into The Woods” if for no other reason than the awesome performance by Ahlers.

It’s not just the boys who are having all the fun though. As Little Red Riding Hood, O’Malley has landed another perfect part for herself. She was fierce as Mary Warren in “The Crucible,” and amazing as Maria in 2015’s “West Side Story,” but for “Into The Woods” she brings the smart alec, blood thirsty Little Red to life. O’Malley carries the knife around in Act II like it’s an extension of herself, and you believe that she’s out for blood. Don’t let the small little girl fool you.

Sarah Ariel Brown gloriously plays Cinderella. While I enjoyed her performance, it is Brown’s singing voice that stood out for me in this musical. She’s easy on the ears, especially with a song like “No One Is Alone,” one of my favorite numbers from “Into The Woods.”

The story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is an integral part of the whole musical, and playing the title character is Blake Bojewski, who has nailed down playing not-so-smart characters. He was great as Crutchie in “Newsies” and perfect as Willard in “Footloose,” and he just brings all his mojo to playing Jack.

Playing Jack’s pet cow Milky White is Grace Robison, who continually stole the spotlight on the stage. It couldn’t have been too comfortable in that costume for Robison, but she got so many laughs from myself and all the people sitting around me. Whoever decided to put Robison in that cow costume and do the show like that earned major props from me.

Rapunzel has a connection to the Baker that he never learns about, but she was raised by the Witch. Though she does have some lines, Rapunzel is mostly a singing part and Kara Ziringer has a stunning voice that is a natural fit for the role. She had a small role as Mercy Lewis in “The Crucible” and bits and pieces in other shows this summer, but after hearing her in “Into The Woods,” one wonders why that voice was kept under wraps for so long. That voice needs to be unleased upon the world as often as possible.

Audiences also will enjoy Leanne Antonio as Cinderella’s stepmother and the voice of the giant, Jennifer Dow as Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda and Little Red’s granny, Bailee Endebrock as Florinda and the voice of Cinderella’s mother, Kathy Hawkins as Jack’s mother, Michael Pacholski as the steward and Mike Yocum as Cinderella’s father.

Brett Frazier gets to be the narrator and the Mysterious Man. The Mysterious Man wasn’t in the film version, but his presence affects the characters greatly, and Frazier is the right man for the role. He’s also got a perfect voice to serve as narrator.

These actors all should return next summer to the Wagon Wheel if possible as I could see them in various roles for the shows announced. Ahlers in “Saturday Night Fever” (June 13-23), McFarland in “All Shook Up” (July 11-21) and O’Malley in Disney’s “Freaky Friday” (Aug. 8-18) just to name a few. Plus, give them a year and they’ll all come back stronger performers if that’s possible considering how great this company has been all season long.

And when they all sing in a chorus as they did at the end of “Into The Woods”? Sublime. Absolutely sublime.

My rating of “Into The Woods” (out of four): 4.

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