‘Into the Woods’ at MST

17 Jan

Wolf_Little Red 1


Quite often in life, no matter how much we know better, we hear, “Oh it was just a fairy tale wedding,” or maybe “It was like something out of a fairy tale.” And people say that, well, like it’s a good thing. In their musical Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine ponder, in each and every line and melody, what the dark side of familiar fairy tales ought to be telling us and what might happen if those fairy tales happened in our own real lives. With a lively assist from Main Street Theater, Houston can now ponder those things right along with them.

The new production with a cream-of-the-crop cast of local actors, nonstop-energy direction by Andrew Ruthven and a quirky, irreverent piano accompaniment by Claudia Dyle manages to be wildly funny when it isn’t too busy being wildly sad. That’s how Into the Woods works, whenever, however and wherever it’s performed, so that this production in Main Street’s small, intimate space with audience on all sides ends up packing most of the emotional punch of a much bigger deal on, say, Broadway.

Main Street and Ruthven set up one odd departure from the original, and then proceed to forget or ignore it. The program describes the show’s time period as “1944,” and then proceeds to open with a famous Edward R. Murrow broadcast from London, which would make it about 1940. After that, it proceeds to tell the mash-up story of various fairy tales pretty much as though it was any time period, or no time period. Which makes you wonder why they messed with the issue in the first place. Then again, efforts to use musicals to say something “profound” about some different time period often end up wasting everybody’s time. No one going to see Main Street’s Into the Woods is in danger of having his or her time wasted.

As a Sondheim musical, there are two signatures on display here: a musical score that never falls for a familiar, cute or hummable melody – and lyrics that never met a pun or unexpected rhyme they didn’t like. At the show’s hyper-literate best, it’s like the cast is singing Tom Stoppard. This makes, naturally, for some tongue-twisters, a few of which made cast members stumble briefly on opening night. This is temporary. Mostly everybody onboard is a delight, both separately and as a spirited ensemble.

Standouts include David Wald on The Baker and Amanda Passananate as The Baker’s Wife, two characters who carry a lot of emotional weight, from the show’s fascination with “getting what you wish for” all the way to guilt for actions that break hearts and/or end lives of those we presume we love. Crystal O’Brien makes a nifty, if conflicted, Cinderella, while Kasi Hollowell brings a satisfying combination of naivete and experience to the role of a Little Red Ridinghood who seems likely to end up inside of more than one wolf before she’s through. Kregg Dailey is terrific as her first Wolf, and even better as the two-timing Prince (who admits he was raised to be “charming, not sincere”). The Witch, played by Bernadette Peters on Broadway, has some of the biggest songs, and these are caressed and/or belted by Christina Stroup in a way that adds to the overall effect. Even more than other characters, her ability to carry a tune while the piano score goes off on its own is impressive. Then again, it always is with Sondheim.

The show is lovely to look at, made so by Ryan McGettigan’s tight and, of necessity, efficient set design, Macy Lyne’s (fairly timeless) costumes and John Metak’s lighting. As is so often the case with Main Street, the focus is not on how much money you can trot out on stage but on how quickly and confidently you can get to the heart of the story. There is a lot of heart in Into the Woods, a very funny heart except when it’s very sad.

Photo by Ric Ornel Productions: Kregg Dailey as The Wolf and Kasi Hollowell as Little Red


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