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'WOODS' ENJOYABLE AS AN OPERA OR MUSICAL

Is it an opera or a musical? Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods has a Broadway pedigree, but St. Petersburg Opera is staging the show with a cast that has more operatic voices than musical theater belters. At times, the singing takes on an almost Mozartean complexity, while the 15-piece orchestra, conducted by Mark Sforzini, is sublime. But few operas can match the nimble lyrics Sondheim comes up with in rhymes like "palace" and "malice" or "pursued" and "mood."

Into the Woods, which opened Friday at the Janet Root Theatre, is not easy to bring off because the book by James Lapine is so involved. Fortunately, director A.J. Wester kept the pacing brisk, and in something of a surprise, the second act (generally considered problematic) was an improvement over Act 1. The cast seemed to need time to settle into the characters, such as Kathleen Berger's Witch who came into her glamorous own in Act 2 with a spellbinding Last Midnight, framed in the stylish lighting of Keith Arsenault. Todd William Donovan, playing the Baker, sang and acted splendidly, culminating with his passionate rendition of No More. Michelle Rego, as the Baker's Wife, was a haunting presence in a benediction to her husband at the end.

The show's ingenues include Margaret Rood as a bratty Little Red Riding Hood and Sara Peeples McNatt as Rapunzel, installed in a delightfully wacky tower on the set by T.J. Ecenia. Kara Cornell, playing Cinderella, was hard to hear at first, but her performance grew, and by the time she reached On the Steps of the Palace, she was endearing.

Agony, the comic duet by a pair of preening Prince Charmings, was a showstopper for Joseph Ryan and Sean Kroll. Stephen Mollica, as Jack, delivered a heartfelt Giants in the Sky.

For a longer review, see Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

If you go

St. Petersburg Opera performs the Stephen Sondheim musical at 2 and 7:30 p.m. today at Janet Root Theater at Shore-crest Preparatory School, 5101 First St. NE, St. Petersburg. Run time: 3 hours, including intermission. $20-$61.50. (727) 823-2040; stpeteopera.org.

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