They had me at the cow.
It wasn't long after the curtain went up at Arizona Repertory Theatre's Wednesday opening of "Into the Woods" that the bovine sauntered out.
Ribs showing, udders dried up, and the most woeful eyes you've ever seen. And, as embodied by an agile Zachary Jamison, that cow had more personality than Elsie could ever hope to have.
But this is a close-to-three-hour production; it needs more than a cow to keep our attention.
And that it has: music by the magical Stephen Sondheim; direction by Rob Gretta, who saw to it that no bit was left undone; and a cast of University of Arizona students with soaring voices and comedic timing.
"Into the Woods" is two stories, really - the first act brings a group of fairy tale characters together who go through their machinations and ends with a happy-ever-after act closer.
Act II tells us what happens ever after: The prince is a philanderer and Cinderella's pretty miserable in that castle. The giant's wife climbs down the beanstalk in search of Jack, who slew her hubby. Rapunzel has gone off into some hysterical nether land. All the characters are faced with growing up and all the pain that that entails.
And always there are the woods, a place where our shadow selves are revealed, our dark sides bubble up, and the psychic landscape of a population that has too little to eat and not enough generosity to go around is rocky and scary.
Gretta managed to get some of the best performances from students who have spent their years at the University of Arizona giving impressive performances.
Preston Maguire and Nikko Kimzin showed a flair for comedy in their roles as sibling princes. Kimzin is the self-assured, overly cocky prince who falls for Cinderella; Maguire is the slightly off-kilter prince who has his eyes on Rapunzel. They both have beautiful voices, and their embodiment of these characters was well rooted. And they were a stitch.
Sarah Baron's witch was demanding and possessive and surprisingly gentle at times. It's a tough role and Baron handled it with ease.
So many little gems in this show - from Patrick Holt's costumes (his gown for the witch is full of wit, color, and rows and rows of ruffles), to moving performances from the likes of Patrick Spencer, who dyed his hair bright red and took on the role of Jack (as in beanstalk) with an eager innocence.
Other solid performances:
Jennifer Hijazi gave her Cinderella a wise and thoughtful guise. Max Nussbaum was a childless butcher with a big heart and a forgetful mind. Meghan Sullivan played a greedy and self-centered Little Red Ridinghood, and Caitlin Kiley was the baker's wife who wanders into the woods against her husband's advice.
Sondheim's music isn't easy. It's layered and complex, and this student cast loved it and treated it with tenderness.
So it was unfortunate that the sound system became a little crackly at times. Other minor issues that we suspect will work themselves out: dancers bumping into each other, clumsy scene changes, and every once in a while a wayward set piece.
Nevertheless, this long musical (it was about 3 hours on Broadway, too) doesn't lag for one moment. And those voices and that music embrace you and make the Marroney Theatre a luxurious place to be for those hours.
"Into the Woods"
• By: Words and music by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine.
• Presented by: Arizona Repertory Theatre.
• Director: Rob Gretta.
• When: 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday, Thursday and next Friday; 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Continues through May 1.
• Where: Marroney Theatre in the University of Arizona Fine Arts complex, near North Park Avenue and East Speedway.
• Tickets: $31, with discounts available.
• Reservations/information: arizona.tix.com or 621-1162.
• Running time: 3 hours, with one intermission.
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at email@example.com or 573-4128.