ASR Theater ~~ “Into the Woods”—A Natural Fit for 110th Mountain Play

By Cari Lynn Pace

Opening day for the 2023 Mountain Play Into the Woods dawned cold and overcast.

Fortunately, the fog was low-lying, and above the clouds rose the clear sunny slopes of Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais. Well-bundled crowds dressed in layers filed onto school busses in downtown Mill Valley to shuttle them up the windy road to the mountaintop. Many hardy and fit souls drove to parking lots at Pan Toll or Bootjack and hiked up. The pilgrimage to the festive outdoor party, shining in the sun, had begun.

Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre holds 3,700 folks in its outdoor venue, with rough granite seats surrounded by abundant forest. On clear days you can see San Francisco and the East Bay from the 2579’ elevation. The ever-present challenge in attending the Mountain Play is to prepare for changes in weather. Some years it’s chilly, or rainy. Other years can bring withering heat, with water sprayers and fans going full blast to keep patrons cool.

…This musical by Stephen Sondheim, with the book by James Lapine, is a mash-up of classic fairy tales….

No matter, the crowds are always friendly and multi-generational. Blankets are spread, coolers opened, paper plates passed around. Popping corks punctuate the laughter and squeals of children. Dedicated foodies have been known to set up tables with cheese fondue and forks. The vibe is always good at the Mountain Play.

Warm-up entertainment begins at 12:30 with local singers, musicians, and food vendors. At 2 p.m., executive director Ellen Grady welcomes the crowd, the orchestra tunes up, and the crowd cheers with enthusiasm as Into the Woods begins.

This musical by Stephen Sondheim, with the book by James Lapine, is a mash-up of classic fairy tales. Characters appear from Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty. A wicked witch puts a curse on the baker and his wife. Prize cow Milky White enjoys a day in the sun.

Samantha Cardenas as Cinderella in “Into The Woods”

Each character is delightfully costumed by Amie Schow. Everyone goes off into the woods – represented by a wooden scaffold designed by Andrea Bechert – to seek their wishes. The plot won’t make much sense, and it won’t be a happy ending – true to the stories written by the Brothers Grimm – but it is entertaining as any fairy tale might be.

Shayla Lawler as Rapunzel.

Director/choreographer Nicole Helfer brings out amusing portrayals from all performers. Their powerhouse singing voices are superb, with not a weak link to be heard. Sondheim fans will hear many unfamiliar songs from this Tony Award-winning score. The better songs are in the long first act, which brought pleasing resolution to the fate of characters that ventured into the woods.

L to R – Christopher Sotelo (Rapunzel’s Prince) and Phillip Harris (Cinderella’s Prince). Photo credit: Ed Smith Photography

Act II begins a dark epilogue. There’s a mean giant, and killings, and infidelity. The second half drags with unhappy outcomes. There are many ballads accompanied by the 15-piece orchestra skillfully conducted by Daniel Alley, the musicians tucked into a lean-to structure onstage.

The first act of Into the Woods is a lightweight show without unhappy outcomes, recommended for all ages. In fact, the first act is often performed as a stand-alone children’s show. The second act’s mean-spirited malevolence may be a matter of concern for parents with sensitive kids.

Remaining performances of Into the Woods are May 28, June 4, 10, and 11, and 18. ASL-interpreted performances are June 10 and 11. All Mountain Play performances are 2 p.m. but it’s best to get there at least an hour before.


ASR Writer & Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a voting member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County. Contact:


ProductionInto The Woods
Written byBook: James Lapine
Music/Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Directed byNicole Helfer
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association / Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThru June 18, 2023
Production AddressCushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, 801 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley CA
Telephone(415) 383-1100
Tickets$25-$50 & Up
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----