BWW Reviews: Main Street Theater's INTO THE WOODS is Splendidly Beautiful
When it comes to modern musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's INTO THE WOODS is definitely among the most beloved. The show had its world premiere in 1986, opened on Broadway in 1987, and won the 1988 Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical in a year that was otherwise dominated by Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. With a handful of revivals and countless regional productions, INTO THE WOODS is a show that both audiences and theater companies love, and Main Street Theater's beautiful production of the classic perfectly illustrates why.
The cherished musical, which repurposes the narratives of "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood," and other fairy tales by The Brothers Grimm, explores the consequences, both positive and negative, of wishes and quests. Keenly, Andrew Ruthven has set his production of the famed show in the midst of World War II. Before the ensemble performs "Act 1 Opening," the cast and audience are chilled by Edward R. Murrow's coverage of the London Blitz from Trafalgar Square on August 24, 1940, which was one of the first broadcasts to bring war to live American radio. In the midst of this inescapable darkness, the cast, clad in their everyday clothing and with props one may find at home, escape into the these fairy tales.
In choosing to open the production this way, certain lines and phases carry more weight than they do in other productions. Andrew Ruthven's directorial choice of setting ensures that audiences attend to the idea of giants in the sky in a different fashion. Also, Cinderella's stepmother's and stepsisters' refusal to fight the giant in the second act could be likened to the United States own desire to maintain its laissez-faire attitude before being drawn into World War II as well. Lastly, the whole sentiment of "Children Will Listen" from the second act's finale and repetition of the phrase of "I wish" from the show take on more meaning with this wartime setting as well. Andrew Ruthven cleverly sets his production in such a way that these well-known lyrics and this much seen musical feels truly brand new all over again.
While one of Stephen Sondheim's most accessible scores, the music for INTO THE WOODS is still richly layered and rather complicated. As Musical Director, Claudia Dyle has coached the entire cast to sing it with ease and lush intonations. Each performance of the numbers leaves the audience clapping enthusiastically. Ensemble numbers are marked by beautiful yet complex chords that are perfectly landed, and solos are deftly performed in spite of any tricky time signatures and keys. Lastly, the human voice is not amplified by microphones during the performance, making the cast work to fill the intimate venue, and each member does so with brilliance. Additionally, as they move about the stage the tonal mixing experienced by the audience changes and becomes a uniquely personal experience. The way I heard "Act 1 Opening" was not the same for someone across the stage from me, which makes the choices in both Direction and Musical Direction all the more interesting and intimate.
The cast works together wonderfully as an ensemble, bringing out the important themes of community in the work. Every member of the cast pulls their own weight to ensure that the production is powerful, moving, and gorgeous from the opening frame to the final note. Naturally, stand out performances are given by Christina Stroup as The Witch, David Wald as The baker, Amanda Passananate as The Baker's Wife, Crystal O'Brien as Cinderella, Marco Camacho as Jack, and Kasi Hollowell as Little Red Riding Hood as these are the personas that the plot emphasizes; however, Rutherford Cravens as the Narrator / Mysterious Man, Amy Garner Buchanan as Cinderella's Stepmother / Jack's Mother, Lauren Dolk as Florinda / Rapuzel / Sleeping Beauty, Katie Porterfield as Lucinda / Cinderella's Mother / Snow White, Scott Gibbs as Milky White / Rapunzel's Prince, Kregg Dailey as The Wolf / Cinderella's Prince, and Judy Frow as The Giant all do notable and laudable jobs with their roles as well. As a whole, there is not one weak moment or performance from the entire ensemble. Whether their story is central at a given moment or not, when they are present on stage they are acting and reacting with precision, completing a picture, and tantalizing the imaginations of the audience.
Macy Lyne's Costume Design is stunning. She has perfectly brought 1940s fashion to life on the stage with pieces that create an image of who each member of the cast is during the opening frame and then seamlessly transition into the fairy tale world Andrew Ruthven presents in his staging of the show. Furthermore, she smartly uses shawls and other quickly removed pieces and accessories to make changes from one character to another relatively easy for the cast members with multiple roles. I count myself as a fan of Macy Lyne's work, and I am willing to say that I think this is her absolute best work so far.
Ryan McGettigan's Set Design appears minimal, but is rather complex. He has masterfully turned Main Street Theater's Rice Village location into a barn-like structure. He has skillfully created a space where bare beams don't look out of place, giving the audience a fascinatingly rich set to look at that is also barren at the same time and can be manipulated by our imaginations to be whatever we desire it to be during the production. It is both detailed and vague, which makes it wonderfully dynamic and versatile during the production.
Lighting Design by John Smetak is gorgeous. He expertly mixes colors to create rich, emotive palettes and washes that flood the stage with dazzling arrays that only heighten the feelings elicited by the cast, music, and direction. Once the cast moves us from World War II and into the timeless world of fairy tales, John Smetak's design begins an intricate dance of transitions and cues that guide our eyes from one part of the stage to another as needed. In many ways it seems that the lights are constantly transitioning and changing, but this ongoing undulating and shifting is never distracting, only enriching.
Properties Design by Rodney Walsworth showcases intelligence as well. While minimal, everything used is period appropriate for the World War II setting of the piece. More over, nothing seems out of place, making each "found element" incorporated into the production feel organic to the performance. I am especially fond of the lengthy knitted scarf used to portray Rapunzel's hair.
Sound Design by Janel J. Badrina is an especially nice touch as well. Mostly only used for moments involving The Giant, I really appreciated her choice to move sounds from one corner of the stage to another, letting the audience tangibly hear the movement of The Giant.
My only complaint about the production is that the audience is never returned to the frame narrative that started the production. Logically, I understand why. There simply is no time to do it, and adding in a coda after the uplifting finale would probably put a damper on the evening. After all, like the characters who tell us the story, we enjoy musical theatre as an escape from the evils of the world as well. However, the scholar in me feels that the production is somewhat incomplete, as the frame narrative has no completion itself. I acknowledge this complaint is rather petty and, most importantly, it has no affect on how much I absolutely loved the production and the performances.
INTO THE WOODS, splendidly produced by Main Street Theater, runs at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard, Houston, 77005 from now until February 16, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://mainstreettheater.com or call (713) 524-6706.
All photos by RicOrnelProductions.com.
Kregg Dailey as The Wolf.
Kasi Hollowell as Little Red Ridinghood & Kregg Dailey as The Wolf.
L to R: Scott Gibbs as Milky White, Marco Camacho as Jack & Amy Garner Buchanan as Jack's Mother.
Christina Stroup as The Witch.
L to R: Marco Camacho as Jack & David Wald as The Baker.
Kregg Dailey as Cinderella's Prince & Crystal O'Brien as Cinderella.
Christina Stroup as The Witch.
L to R: Crystal O'Brien as Cinderella & Kasi Hollowell as Little Red Ridinghood.