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BWW Reviews: Main Street Theater's INTO THE WOODS is Splendidly Beautiful

Christina Stroup as The Witch.

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.

Christina Stroup as The Witch, David Wald as The Baker,
Kasi Hollowell as Little Red Ridinghood, Marco Camacho
as Jack & Crystal O'Brien as Cinderella.

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.

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David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.

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