"I love Into the Woods," wrote Fairfield Warde Director Mark Frattaroli about this first musical he directed 10 years ago at the school, when, in his own words, "I didn't know what I was doing. Now, I see I have the performers who can sing and act this difficult, but rich show."

He was so right. We caught the May 1 performance and were blown away by the production, the talent and the voices. I have to admit that I never saw Into the Woods on Broadway, and I've either loved or hated Stephen Sondheim's music, but this wonderful evening helped me warm up to the show. Who knew that fractured, dysfunctional fairy tale characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack from the legendary beanstalk story could have so much baggage?

What I also learned, and this what we discovered that night, is that one has to listen very closely to Sondheim's lyrics, which have to be articulated clearly and with feeling, just as these performers did.

In Frattaroli's words, "Sondheim's music places such value on the lyrics, and their brilliance is hard to capture on a first hear -- but when the show comes to its emotional climax, the beautiful `No One is Alone', let the beauty of the melody and wisdom of the lyrics fill you. It is brilliance of simplicity."

It's hard to decide where to begin on the performers, because Frattaroli assembled a magnificent cast of future Broadway stars, similar to what we saw in last year's Fiddler on the Roof. And if I overlook anyone, it is hardly deliberate. I can only gush so much in a short column.

I want to start with Jordan Mann, who took the show from the moment she walked on stage until the finale, "Children Will Listen." She is a powerhouse of a performer and the audience took to her immediately. When this witch spoke, everyone listened and shuddered, especially the poor baker and his wife, whose future she dictated. Thankfully, when her witch makeup came off and she became the softer spoken mother of the fractured Rapunzel again, we could really see the range of Jordan Mann's talent. Bravo.

In a word, Nick Salese, the narrator, was excellent. His voice was clear and powerful and he carried the show from start to finish. He has a great singing voice also.

Erica Intilangelo as Cinderella was as warm as the cinders she cleaned from the fireplace and her beautiful voice helped carry the powerful closing number, "No One is Alone." I am pretty sure we saw her last year in Fiddler and had the same reaction, but I don't want to guess wrong on the character.

We were mesmerized by Johnny Shea in Fiddler last year, and this performance of Jack was equally animated and filled with enthusiasm. We almost found ourselves in tears when he had to give Milky White, his cow, to the baker. And his interaction with Sara Detrik, his mother, was terrific, as was her performance, and we couldn't wait to see each new treasure Johnny (Jack) brought with him from the beanstalk, until the giant showed up to ruin the fun.

Rachel Barlaam as the baker's wife, desperate for a child, displayed great stage presence and took command of the show several times. A beautiful voice, mixed with wonderful and sincere acting made Rachel one of true stand outs in this show.

And Diana Barlaam's portrayal of the wicked stepmother to Cinderella was delightful to watch. She was so deliciously evil and cunning about the way she tried to squeeze her daughters into Cinderella's glass slipper.

Josh Portera and Sam Jones as the princes who loved Rapunzel and Cinderella, respectively, were wonderful in their roles and really brought Sondheim's music and lyrics to life. We particularly enjoyed the "Agony" number they did together, as well as Jones' interpretation of "Any Moment" with his temporary lover, the baker's wife. Truly excellent.

Little Red Riding Hood, Lindsey Reuter was so delightfully annoying that we had some moments where we wished the wolf might have devoured her. But those moments were temporary and her voice and her performance were stellar. She did a fabulous job with a tough role that had her more on stage than off.

The rest of the cast was outstanding as well and rounded out a company with truly great talent. Kudos to all of them.

As I mentioned in the beginning, one either likes or dismisses Sondheim's music, but Jay Spadone, musical director, and his fine orchestra did so much to help me like the music of this very tough show.

And I could really feel the teamwork in action for this production, which required a lot of quick scene changes and sound effects. Everything just worked and the performance came together like a well-oiled machine.

In an environment where so many productions never quite make it out of the woods, this one was a real triumph for the performers, musicians, crew and, particularly for one great director, who was able to fall in love again with Into the Woods.

Steve Gaynes can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.