Ensemble Theatre’s “Into the Woods”
McKenna Gemberling as Cinderella, left, and Cassidy Broderick as Little Red Riding Hood in “Into the Woods.” (Zach Mendez photo)

Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 Tony Award-winning play “Into the Woods” enjoyed a spirited production last weekend by Ensemble Theatre Co.’s Young Actors Conservatory at The New Vic.

The story of a Baker and his Wife trying to reverse a curse weaves together the fairy tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood.

Ensemble Theatre’s “Into the Woods”

Morgan Johnson as The Baker, Hunter Hawkins as The Witch and Stephanie Brown as The Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.” (Zach Mendez photo)

A narrator, a witch and a mysterious man in the woods offer insight that infuses the play with ironic wit and poignant wisdom: “We disappear, we disappoint, we die, but we don’t.”

Through comedy, tragedy, tender songwriting, clever rhymes and metaphor, Into the Woods explores the dark places you have to go to become new, the danger in getting what you wish for, and the universal themes of loneliness, faith and courage in the journey of life.

Brian McDonald, the director and ETC’s director of education and outreach, kept his cast moving at a swift clip. His work ensured smooth transitions and snappy punctuation in a complex story.

Every member of the cast made me laugh out loud. Each brought strong vocals, sharp physicality and sophisticated affect to roles that, marked by silliness and even straight-up comic gore, depicted people undergoing real transformation.

Morgan Johnson as the Baker, a role he stepped into just a week before the opening, was as funny in what he didn’t say or do as in what he did, and he commanded a huge portion of the songs and scenes with sophistication and subtlety.

As his wife, Stephanie Brown had a powerful voice, a convincing presence and, as a woman who becomes more than seemed possible, a refined sense of comedy and paradox. Singing “the lies justify the beans,” she brought a sweet, Machiavellian devotion to her man and their quest.

Hunter Hawkins made a big splash as both the overprotective witch and the decisive beauty she was once and is again. Her vocals and acting were forceful, as dictated by her role, but also pleasing and moving.

Equally potent but more subdued, McKenna Gemberling’s sage, equanimous Cinderella provided a strong and steady foundation, and served as “straight-man” for much of the plot.

A pair of vain princes were played with foppish melodrama by Chris Carmona and Blake Brundy. Their maturity and polish brought heft to the comic moments in their scenes, featuring majestic gestures and poses, knowing looks and grand jeté exits.

Special standout performances by two younger actors deserve noting: Cassidy Broderick as Little Red Riding Hood and Henry Challen as Jack. Their unique timing, subtle facial expressions and expressive body language made their bits outstandingly funny.

Character roles: Cinderella’s stepmother (Jackie Thompson), stepsisters (Phoebe Appel and Miranda Ortega), Jack’s mother (Grace Wenzel) and Cinderella’s mother (Beau Glaizer) convincingly represented the masses, the easily led, the manipulative and the pedantic.

Kaitlyn Diffenderfer captivated as Rapunzel, sheltered daughter and siren-singer of wordless choruses turned neurotic castaway.

The duets — Rapunzel and her overprotective mother, the pair of brother princes, the Baker and his father, and Cinderella and the Baker — took my breath away as different voices and characters complemented each other with particular grace and affect.

An eight-piece live orchestra conducted by JP Douglas, though hidden from view, brought instrumental warmth and depth in support of the singing.

The production values were so satisfying, including creative fairy tale set pieces — a tower, a tree with a spirit trapped inside, village cottages, even a cow that tipped itself. The lighting and sound effects brought to life giants, beanstalks and other things unseen.

With “Into the Woods” as its inaugural production, I look forward to the talent that the Young Actors Conservatory will nurture in coming years.

— Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. The opinions expressed are her own.