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BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS Charms From The Garden Theatre at the MATCH

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running at MATCH Complex through October 31st

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS Charms From The Garden Theatre at the MATCH

INTO THE WOODS is easily the most popular Stephen Sondheim musical to produce, and it has become a staple of regional, community, and high school theaters across the country. Rob Marshall oversaw a film adaptation in 2014 which gave audiences a chance to see Meryl Streep take on the fairy tale witch role that Bernadette Peters created for Broadway in 1987. It's one of the most accessible of Sondheim's shows, and few actors don't have it on their resume. Sure it has the composer's trademark syncopated rhythmic speak-singing and tonal complexities layered over deep and dark emotional pathos, but it's about fairy tales! Ironically it's a show that doesn't believe in happily ever after, but most people miss that and consider it a sweet foray into stories they know and love. It's an easy choice for The Garden Theatre to make their inaugural production at the MATCH, and director Logan Vaden has surprises up his sleeve to keep the oft told tale fresh.


For this production the setting is in a library, and the idea is that INTO THE WOODS is being acted out for children by adult volunteers who are seeking to entertain them at a storytime event. What this allows for is to reduce the scope of the effects and costumes. Ordinary objects and library things become the woods, a castle, or whatever they need to be. There has always been some amount of doubling with actors playing two roles in INTO THE WOODS, but director Logan Vaden doubles down on this concept. He has stripped down the cast, and often people are playing a half dozen roles throughout the night with very quick changes and tight exits and re-entrances. Also, he has assembled a decidedly diverse group with no mind given to physical traits such as race, height, or gender identity. It's a ragtag team of volunteers doing what they can with what is lying around, and any expectations be damned as long as they just go for it.

The mission of The Garden Theatre as stated in the program is to be a company that provides an outlet for "semi-professional" actors to have a space to perform in. This may be the case, but the cast acquitted themselves well enough to rival recent professional productions of INTO THE WOODS by companies such as TUTS or established regional theaters. David Allen III makes for a likeable young version of the narrator and mysterious old man, and he brings a hip sense of style to what can often be a stereotypical "old white man" role. Sophia Clarke appears mainly as Cinderella, and her clear wonderful tone and charismatic stage presence carry her through the piece nicely. She's strong of voice and has great comic timing. Aili Maeve makes for a surprisingly skinny and Goth version of Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. She transforms these roles into her own with a strong operatic voice and extreme histrionic emotions. She hits the farce level the director seems to aim for, and manages to keep it in check enough to be believed. Chad Fontenot plays a wide-eyed Jack as well as a simpering court steward that contrast each other nicely. He's a blast of fun to watch, and is assuredly game for this journey. Ryley Wilson is one of the only people to play a live version of Milky White the faithful pet cow (usually a plastic prop), he also brings a handsome stately presence to his Prince, and then a naughty wicked stepsister. He's showing tons of range! Taylor Moessinger embodies the mom to everyone in the show, and she contrasts wicked and kind (or in between) in equal measure with much skill. There is a fun addition of a children's chorus that help out throughout the proceedings when needed, and they add a whimsical youth and fresh vigor anytime they appear.

There are pros and cons to stripping down the pageantry of INTO THE WOODS, but one clear advantage is the actors are not hidden under heavy prosthetics or masks. With two roles this has a huge impact. It works extremely well for Corey Barron who makes a sexy and dangerous wolf in the first act, and carries through as the charming Prince throughout the evening. He has a commanding presence and voice in both roles. He's great at being feral without the help of a bulky mask or too much extra fur. Osiris Hart plays the mysterious witch and they turn in an amazing performance from start to finish. They have much to sell without the aid of heavy makeup and huge costumes helping, but they capture all of the quirks of the wicked witch who transforms into a beautiful and wise guide for the show. Both Corey and Osiris have a fairy tale magic to them that helps lift the show past the mundane.

INTO THE WOODS always hinges around the baker and his wife who are at the center of every plot, and also have to mine the play's search for happiness and morality when you make a wish or meet a stranger. Once more director Logan Vaden has cast against type with Anthony Savage-Willams and Ronna Mansfield. Anthony has a dark thick baritone, and gives the Sondheim works a touch of soul that they usually miss. His delivery of the songs is unique, and he brings much to the table. Ronna has a wry delivery in song and dialogue that captures the journey of all the characters in her singular performance. She is the yin to William's yang, and that somehow sells them even more as a married couple. They work together to hold the center of the play beautifully.

As an ensemble the players make the most of this work without the usual cast of thousands that the play can sometimes utilize. The way it is all staged I could hear each performer solely during different group times, and everyone was right in the pocket with harmonies and projection. Chelsea Lerner brought out the best in the group with her musical direction. Austin Colburn's choreography also lends itself well to interesting formations using only a handful of people. It's nothing too flashy, but comes together well given the simplicity everyone is aiming for.

Costumes are designed by Kimberly and Osiris Hart, and they have a cool vibe that INTO THE WOODS has never had. It's largely American street wear, so traditional fairy tale garb is only hinted at. They reimagine the characters using only hints here and there like a hoodie or a watch to express who and where they are. Nicholas White's library inspired set moves around nimbly on wheels, and creates an amazing sense of place with just bookshelves and various levels. Lighting and sound by Edgar Guajardo is spot-on, and the highlight is the recording of the giant who is a nice surprise cameo from a Houston theater and voice acting legend who recently moved.

If there are any faults to be had with this iteration of INTO THE WOODS it could be with minimizing the scope you have to deal with how that impacts the show, because originally it was designed for a big budget. The performers are up against a pre-recorded orchestral track which stays at one volume throughout. Stronger voiced performers like Osiris and Aili have no trouble projecting throughout the piece, but as the show wore on some sounded vocally tired and softer than they needed to be up against the music. There could be adjustments made for this that would help. But I am glad they skipped using microphones in such a small space.

At two hours and forty-five minutes plus a fifteen minute interval, INTO THE WOODS is notoriously drawn out (the movie wisely chopped quite a bit). The Broadway production had tons of razzle dazzle with effects, sets, and costumes; however, here we are looking at a minimalist world. For the most part the library setting works, but it also made me impossibly aware that this musical is long in the tooth with many beats that seem superfluous. The actors and the direction keep things afloat, but the show feels overstuffed without as much to distract you.

At the end of the day what works best is this production tells the story of INTO THE WOODS well, and reinvents the piece for a small black box space at the MATCH. As library storytime it strangely works. Direction is solid, the cast is talented, and they all allow the audience to work their imagination a little more than what you have seen before. It retains the magic the show needs to come alive. For an extra giggle or two arrive early to the show for a peek inside the library's story time.

How To Get Tickets

INTO THE WOODS runs through October 31st at the MATCH Complex located at 3400 Main Street. There is street parking around the building as well as a garage across the street which will run $7 to stay the duration of the show. Evening performances start at 7:30 or 8:00pm while weekend matinees are at 2:00pm. Covid protocols require audience members to remain masked throughout the entire performance. Tickets and performance information can be found at https://matchouston.org/


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