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Photo by David Papas

By ROBERT DIGITALE

What comes after “happily ever after”? For one answer, turn to Sonoma State University’s ambitious and sparkling production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

This “Once-upon-a-time” musical turns some familiar fairy tales on their ears, all the while using their primal themes to tug on our heartstrings.

A baker and his wife long for a child. A mistreated, unloved stepdaughter wants to go to the ball. A simple boy and his mother must sell their milk cow in order to survive. And a ruthless witch craves ingredients for a mysterious potion.

Will they get their desires? And what will happen if they do? You think you know the story, then you don’t.

Sondheim, also the composer for “Sweeney Todd” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and librettist James Lapine mesh together a half-dozen fairy tales. Then they mix in a galloping score filled with so much witticism that the brain can barely keep up. (“Rooting through my rutabaga, Raiding my arugula and Ripping up the rampion—My champion! My favorite!” rails the witch as she recalls a thief in her garden.)

Those who’ve seen the 2014 feature film know this isn’t exactly a children’s tale. Especially in the second act, we behold much of human frailty: Blaming and hating and straying and thinking only of ourselves. Along the way the play touches on deep needs and fears. Will people like the real me? What is the bond between parent and child? Do I belong?

The cast at Thursday’s premiere repeatedly found ways to shine in the spotlight, often with strong singing and nice comedic touches. This was an ensemble well suited for their roles, and the large crowd at the Evert B. Person Theatre rewarded them with an enthusiastic ovation.

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Photo by David Papas

Allie Evans was a force on stage as the Witch, a demanding and fearsome tempter, but one that has a soft spot for a long-haired “daughter” locked away in a doorless tower.

Her stirring voice was matched by several other actresses, especially Emily Thomason as Cinderella and Natasha Potts as the Baker’s Wife.

Brett Mollard gave the role of the Baker a needed touch of humanity—a man confused and grieving but trying to do the right thing. Lawrence Ricardo made Jack not only simple but lovable, and Emily Rice gave Little Red Riding Hood a spunky edge.

Malik-Charles Wade I and Ted Smith had the audience caught up in the silliness of the self-absorbed, agonizing princes. (They were, as one put it, taught to be “charming, not sincere.”) And Hannah Hobbs in the ingenious costume for the bovine Milky White, often grabbed attention with movements both subtle and slapstick.

Musical director Lynne Morrow and stage director Marty Pistone led the production. Morrow also directs the 13-piece orchestra.

The show features an eye-pleasing backdrop and stage by set designer Patrick Szczotka and the intriguing use of shadow figures projected for scenes involving the demise of a ravenous wolf and the invasion of a revenge-filled female giant.

A tip of the hat to the rest of the talented cast: Mathew Adiao, Elizabeth L. Robertson, Laura Henry, Adrianna Lazar, Joseph Grant, Katie Foster, Allan Chornak, Karenna Miller Pullen, Maddie Crook and Allie Nordby.

The play continues through Feb. 14, with a $5 friends and family night on Thursday Feb. 11. For ticket information, click here.