BWW Reviews: A Magical Trip INTO THE WOODS
We all have our wishes, and if your wish is to see quality musical theater in San Antonio, you need not bargain with a witch for your wish to be granted. Instead, head over to The Woodlawn Theatre and catch their current production of Into the Woods. What you'll find-aside from a reminder as to why we love musical theater in the first place-is a magical, engaging, and thoughtful production of one of Stephen Sondheim's most beloved shows.
As Into the Woods gives us Sondheim's unique spin on the familiar tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, the Woodlawn's production has a fanciful, dreamlike aesthetic. Their stage, transformed into a vast and mysterious forest by set designers Kurt Wehner and Benjamin Grabill, gives the characters the perfect environment to inhabit. The massive set is beautiful, menacing, and incredibly impressive. Rose Kennedy's detailed and opulent costumes continue the fantasy motifs. Visually, the entire show looks like illustrations from a living, breathing children's book, albeit intended for adults (it is Sondheim, after all).
While the design work is steeped in fantasy, the direction by Greg Hinojosa is more infused with reality. His treatment of the characters and their situations feels incredibly authentic. Yes, the characters live in an idyllic fairy tale kingdom, but they are nevertheless imperfect, flawed, and human. Hinojosa and his cast mine those imperfections for all they're worth.
Each member of the 17 person cast gives an all-out, polished, thoughtful performance to the point where you remind yourself that you're viewing a regional production rather than a touring production. Through their strength as performers, Sondheim's score sounds just as rich as it does on any cast recording (I'd even argue that it sounds better here than it did in the 2002 Broadway Revival).
As Into the Woods is a true ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle, it is challenging to single out any of the cast members, though a few throw in some memorable touches. As the Baker (Rapunzel's long lost brother, as imagined by Sondheim) and his wife, Ben Scharff and Amanda Golden play their roles far more grounded than I've ever seen them played before. Instead of overdoing the plethora of marital spats and arguments they have during the show, Scharff and Golden play the couple as a unified team. It's a choice that makes their characters far easier to understand. While I've seen other productions that go so over the top with the two that you're left wondering why they got married and why they want to have a child together, Scharff and Golden ensure that love and tenderness between the Baker and his wife is always apparent, even underneath their many trivial arguments.
Megan DeYoung takes a similar approach with the character of The Witch. Instead of playing her as a campy diva, DeYoung plays the Witch with a more thoughtful, purposeful approach. Just like the rest of the inhabitants of the kingdom, she has her unfulfilled wishes, and those wishes drive her in everything that she does. As Jack and Little Red, Trevor Chauvin and Carlye Gossen play up the youth of their characters, a wise choice that masks their twenty-something ages while providing the show with some comic relief. Their true ages certainly help them in the darker second act, though, as both Chauvin and Gossen believably portray their characters' loss of innocence and maturation to adulthood.
But the biggest surprise in the cast is Melissa Zarb-Cousin as Cinderella. This is no Disney princess. In fact, she's not very princess-like at all. Instead of being sugary sweet, Zarb-Cousin highlights Cinderella's occasional moments of brattiness. To say that her take on Cinderella is unexpected would be an understatement. She's a bit calloused and even bitchy at moments, but hey, she's been abused by her family all her life. She deserves a little victory dance when her step-sisters are blinded, and when she actually does one, we love her all the more for it.
While the Woodlawn is known for excellence, Into the Woods seems to redefine the word. Woodlawn has raised the bar even higher for themselves and for the theater community in Central Texas. If the upcoming film version is half this good, we'll all be spellbound.
INTO THE WOODS closed at the Woodlawn Theatre on March 16th. Their next production, the Regional Premiere of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, will play April 11th - May 11th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $15-$23. For tickets and information, please visit www.woodlawntheatre.com