It’s a transitional year at Theatre Under the Stars, with a new Artistic Director, Sheldon Epps, and a new vision to take this long-time Houston show producer and presenter into its next chapter. So it’s only appropriate that with the turn of a page comes a story based some of the most famous works in literature…and what happens when you get what you think you want.
“Into the Woods” follows a Baker and his Wife, who wish to have a child; Cinderella who wishes to attend the King’s Festival; and Jack, who wishes his cow would give milk. When the baker and his wife learn that they cannot have a child because of a Witch’s curse, the two set off on a journey to break the curse. Everyone’s wish is granted, but the consequences of their actions return to haunt them later with disastrous results. The first act is, more or less, the stories you know from the fairy tale world. But in the second act, things take a dark and sinister turn with the characters often regretting their actions.
Perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s second most-famous show (behind “Sweeney Todd”), the story is full of clever lyrics and parables beyond what are contained in the original stories. The show’s finale, “Children Will Listen,” is a product of Sondheim’s difficult relationship with his own mother and a cautionary tale of the way we guide our children via our thoughts and deeds. The memorable score, played in this production by a lavish 16-piece orchestra, has never sounded better.
Director Robert Longbottom has reproduced the original Broadway staging for the Hobby Center stage with a wonderful framing device used at the beginning and end of the show to great effect. Often directors wish to add their own “touch” or “spin” to a show that otherwise does not need it. While it’s true that “Into the Woods” can certainly stand on its own feet without any changes to the story, this “modern” addition does not in any way detract from the story and in the end, may in fact have you teared up during the payoff. I’ll admit that I knew the conceit before seeing the production and while I felt that it was clever and appropriate, I was very impressed with the way it enhanced the ending in a way I had not expected.
The cast is one of the best in recent TUTS memory with no weak spots during the opening night performance I attended. Broadway veteran Emily Skinner is devilishly delicious as The Witch and her transformation towards the end of act one is extremely well done. The two princes, Rapunzel’s (Nick Bailey) and Cinderella’s (Jeremy Hays) are lots of fun, especially during their duet “Agony” and its second act reprise. Hays also does double-duty as The Wolf. Britney Coleman makes an engaging Cinderella and sings beautifully, perhaps the best voice in this excellent cast. Kally Duling brings a childish charm with a twist of lost youth to Little Red Riding Hood, while Jack (Tyler Jones) and his Mother (Lauren Cohn) are both charming. Jim Stanek (as the Baker) and Paul Slade Smith (as the Narrator) are perhaps the two strongest male leads, with Smith accomplishing some amazing quick-changes that will likely surprise many when he is revealed as a second character. Stephanie Gibson, the Baker’s wife, to me looked a lot like her original Broadway cast doppelganger Joanna Gleason and was a great partner and occasional foil to Stanek.
The sets and costumes were excellent and overall the production values very good. The proscenium featured a broken (or perhaps incomplete) frame and the set pieces adapted from act to act to show the shake-up within the story. The use of the moon as a clock for the Cinderella scenes was a nice touch and the overall look of the show is very close to the original New York production. The sound, often an issue at TUTS shows, was consistent for the most part with only a couple of missed volume cues.
TUTS was originally scheduled to present “Shrek the Musical” during this time frame and one of the first things the new artistic director Sheldon Epps did was scratch that show and replace it with “Into the Woods.” He also replaced “Grease” with the outstanding “Into the Heights” produced earlier this year and they also decided to produce a new version of “Dreamgirls” next year instead of the oft-performed “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Mr. Epps is, in my opinion, two for two in his changes. Here’s hoping that the streak continues. To borrow a phrase from Mr. Sondheim, “I wish…”
****1/2 out of *****
“Into the Woods”
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Robert Longbottom
Theatre Under the Stars – The Hobby Center
Now through December 18th
Photo: Nick Bailey as Rapunzel’s Prince and Jeremy Hays as Cinderella’s Prince in “Into the Woods” at Theatre Under the Stars