BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS Invigorates Audiences at HFAC
Taylor Fisher as the Baker and Jennifer Stewart as the Baker's Wife. Photo by Audree Garcia.
INTO THE WOODS is now playing through November 8, 2015 at the Garza Mainstage of the Houston Family Arts Center. INTO THE WOODS is the Steven Sondheim musical and winner of countless awards including three Tony Awards in 1988 and two Tony Awards during the 2002 Broadway revival.
I saw INTO THE WOODS at the ever-improving Houston Family Arts Center this past Friday evening, and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance despite a few issues.
The plays at HFAC have consistently improved over the last few years. They've climbed the ranks in the community theatre world and have maintained a status near the level of Queensbury Theatre and only a handful of others. INTO THE WOODS is an ambitious undertaking for a community theatre. The music is complex and the costumes and set are anything but minimalistic. HFAC's ambition is realized through this production directed by Sam Brown, and you can clearly see his heart and soul in a musical that rivals some professional productions around town. The production did have a few flaws, but they were minor and didn't diminish the fact that this was a noteworthy performance.
The Witch (Rachel Landon) has placed a spell on the Baker (Taylor Fisher) and the Baker's Wife (Jennifer Stewart) that prevents them from having children. In order to break the spell, the Baker and his wife must go into the woods to obtain items the Witch has requested. Meanwhile, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk and played by Jordi Viscarri) must enter the woods to sell his beloved cow, which also happens to be one of the items the Baker and his wife need to break the spell. In the woods, they encounter an ensemble of familiar but refreshing characters like Little Red Riding Hood, a Wolf, a Grandmother, Cinderella, Rapunzel, two princes, and others. After a series of comical and tragedious events, the Giant seeks to kill Jack to avenge her husband's death. The Baker, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella all want to protect Jack from being killed by the Giant. The Witch wants to give in to the Giant's demands and hand Jack over.
The standouts of the evening were Rachel Landon as the Witch, Larry Luck as Cinderella's Prince, and Taylor Fisher as the Baker. Landon was tremendously glorious and frightening as the Witch. It's a deceptively straightforward role, but Landon gave it color and depth. For half of the performance she donned an old witch mask, which she handled with ease. Despite some facial expressions hidden by the mask, Landon successfully used voice and movement to fill in shades of emotion and heighten tension in each scene. Her voice went from raspy to giggly and demonic to tender which made for a unique and unpredictable Witch. I found myself sympathizing with her one moment, like during "Stay With Me" and fearing her the next, like during "Last Midnight". Larry Luck was superb as Cinderella's Prince. He commanded our attention and found the comedy in each moment, not just each scene. His comedic timing and movement yielded laughs throughout the show, but especially during "Any Moment". Taylor Fisher was delightful as the Baker. It was a pleasure watching him on stage. Whenever he was offstage, I found myself wondering when he'd be back. I enjoyed going on this journey with him, enjoyed laughing with him, and felt his torment during "No One Is Alone". Finally, Christopher Conway was excellent in his portrayals of and shifting between the Narrator and the Mystery Man.
The set was strategically covered in trees, vines, and foliage that unfurled up, down, and along the proscenium, bringing the audience into the world of these fairy tale characters. The lighting was spot on and fun. The use of shadow and light effectively carried the characters through their stories. Hues of blues, red, and greens gave subtle back lighting to allow some characters to glow, a wonderful moon was projected upstage, and we get to see the final moments of the Wolf's scene through shadows. Sam Brown's use of space with the actors was effective, provided multiple levels, and he steered our focus appropriately through the story. The trees were wonderful. Rarely do the poor souls that have to move these types of objects on stage get the credit they deserve. I should know. I, along with a few other actors, once had the pleasant task of moving fourteen foot high 200 pound (at least they seemed that high and heavy) walls and mirrors across the Wortham stage during HGO's TURN OF THE SCREW. You can't be seen, you can't be heard, you must move with stealth, grace, and strength. And you most definitely can't be late or too careful. During INTO THE WOODS, I could tell the young actors behind the trees worked hard to ensure they executed the choreography with precision and went through great effort to not trample the other actors or be seen. The Tree Ninjas were played by Bambi Carlson, Victoria Carlson, Katie Williams, and Cody Brautigam.
Although most of the cast and character choices were splendid, some of the execution of characters didn't seem to mesh well with the rest of the production. Although Viscarri was fantastic musically, the character arc for Jack didn't seem fully executed the way he was written. Also, although Jack's Mom had an incredible voice, there were moments when she seemed to be addressing the audience instead of speaking to the person on stage. I have seen multiple shows at HFAC, and despite their renovations and influx of talent, they still have sound issues. A good portion of the show had loud crackling presumably from a mic; I'm not sure if the battery needed replacing, the mic wasn't attached correctly, or something else, but it was distracting. Also, a mic was left on after a scene and captured audible whispering. Finally, slow transitions and pacing caused the show to drag in a few places near the end. Despite the transitions and pacing issues, INTO THE WOODS is an energetic and lively show. Please don't let these minor issues stop you from checking out this stellar production.
Overall, the show makes for a great entertaining evening and features some outstanding actors, singers, and technical artists. Go see INTO THE WOODS for yourselves, and see how HFAC is invigorating audiences and having an impact on the theatre scene in the Houston area.
For ticket information, please visit: http://www.houstonfac.com/
INTO THE WOODS
Houston Family Arts Center
Director: Sam Brown
Executive Producer: Michael Montgomery
Music Director and Choreographer: Adam Delka
Scenic Designer: Kiara Steelhammer
Costume Designer: Amber Stepanik
Costume Designer: Ellen Girdwood
Lighting Designer: Ron Putterman
Cast: Taylor Fisher, Jennifer Stewart, Rachel Landon, Morgan Montgomery, Nicole Norton, Jordi Viscarri, Kristen Malisewski, Joey Castorena, Sophia Clarke, Tyler Collins, Chris Conway, Larry Luck, Scott Mills, Shannon Murray, JJ Obee, Laura Renfroe, Shane Weikel, Elizabeth Wilson, and Chris Wisdom.