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Theatre review: 'Into the Woods Jr.'

It is hinted in the lively opening moments of Mill Mountain Theatre’s “Into the Woods Jr.” that the audience is in for a happy ride. And the talented young performers — all members of the Mill Mountain Theatre Conservatory for kids in grades six through 12 — definitely deliver.

The hourlong show is an offshoot of the Tony-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, but with important differences: It has been condensed and stripped of the murder, infidelity and other dark elements of the original.

What remains is a tuneful and funny musical — complete with happy ending — that’s appropriate for family audiences and the juvenile actors who bring it to them.

“Into the Woods,” both the original and its offspring, is a devilishly clever conflation of the plots and characters of multiple fairy tales. A baker and his wife are childless because the local witch has both stolen their daughter (the tress-blessed Rapunzel of fairy tale fame) to raise as her own and condemned them to infertility. The witch offers to lift the curse if the couple will fetch her a white cow, a gold-colored slipper, a red cape and a lock of yellow hair. They’re needed for a potion she plans to brew.

Eager to get on with their bizarre scavenger hunt, the couple heads for the woods to launch their quest. There they encounter, among multiple other characters, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (of beanstalk lore) and Little Red Riding Hood. If you’re up on your fairy tales, you know they possess the objects so desperately sought by the baker and his wife.

Conflict naturally ensues, for Cinderella and company at first are loathe to part with their possessions. But the value of cooperation is learned, along with other useful life lessons, and peace and goodwill eventually prevail.

The show benefits from the excellent work of Karen Gierchak (scenery), Alicia Varcoe (lighting), Jessica Gaffney (costumes), Ayme Gierchak (sound design), Sarah Halstead (props) and musical director Seth Davis and his orchestra.

Among the performers, Olivia Goodman merits special notice for her portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood. So do Savannah Amos as the witch, Caitlin Carter as Cinderella, Jack Dunkenberger as Cinderella’s prince and CJ Rodenberg as Rapunzel’s prince. Rodenberg also excels as the wicked wolf.

Truth is, the entire cast is strong and clearly well-rehearsed. These kids act, they sing and dance, their comic timing is startlingly sharp. It’s a chain with no weak links. Who knew the area harbored such a trove of youthful talent-in-training? Plaudits to director/choreographer Anna Kimmell for a job expertly done.

Now do your part. Support the theater and the conservatory by attending the show. You won’t be sorry.

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