BWW Reviews: Bayou City Theatrics' INTO THE WOODS Puts a Fantastic, Fresh, and Intimate Spin on a Classic
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by David Clarke
What happens when artists reclaim prominent fairy tale figures from Disney's sparkling and sanitzied translations? Well, for one, INTO THE WOODS is born. The show, with a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, presents fairy tale characters that are closer to their origins. They are bawdy, sarcastic, humorous, and ultimately tangibly real in their own ways. The varnish is removed and their valuable lessons are given to light again. Whether you love or hate Stephen Sondheim's work, there is no denying that the man is brilliant and INTO THE WOODS, as produced by Colton Berry's Bayou City Theatrics, magnificently illustrates this.
At the top of INTO THE WOODS, a young boy comes on stage in a harried hurry. As the boy's flashlight bounces around the theatre, the fairy tale cast files into the background, creating a forest-or woods-of human bodies. The child is obviously running from someone or something. As terror sets in, the child begins to recount the fairytales that comfort him. The woods seemingly come to life and act out the tale of a Baker and his wife striving to collect the ingredients for a magic potion that will enable them to have a child of their own. However, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack of Jack in the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel feature prominently in this multifaceted tale as well, with their narratives being creatively and cleverly woven into the Baker and his wife's plot.
Direction by Colton Berry is nothing short of fantastic. INTO THE WOODS is a huge musical with a large cast; yet, Colton Berry and his cast of 18 fit the giant show into a small 130-seat venue. Colton Berry's direction deftly draws the audience into the action, having both a stage entrance and acting space located within the seating area. Thus, Colton Berry's INTO THE WOODS is incredibly intimate. Moreover, each character is distinctive and stands apart from the others, which often gives audiences enough to watch on stage that repeat viewings will be required for members of the audience who want to see it all. Whenever they are present on stage, Colton Berry has expertly directed each member of his cast to consistently be reacting to the action of the show, even if they are not entirely involved in it at that particular time. For example, the young narrator, even when mostly tucked out of sight, is visually reacting to the story he is telling. No mater where your eyes may land, you'll be seeing quality acting occurring at all times.
As the Baker, Matt Johnson's Baritone instrument is comfortably on display. Adding light Gospel inspired touches to his singing sets his character apart from others, while adding beauty and stirring emotionality to his songs, especially on "No One Is Alone." The audience can't help but root for him, as he is entirely likeable even when he becomes a father that is completely unsure of himself as a parent, having no clue what to do with his own infant child.
Danica Johnston's as the Baker's Wife is a pure jot to watch perform. Her lovely Soprano instrument is gloriously on display. Within the setting of the intimate venue and her choices of characterization, it becomes instantly apparent that her living vicariously through Cinderella being chased by the prince is because of her own infatuation with him. This makes her momentary affair with him between "Any Moment" and "Moment in the Woods" a pay off of audience expectations, not a surprise. Lurking under the wholesome surface of the Danica Johnston's Baker's wife is a woman who is not quite satiated with her life, which brings an interesting dynamic to the character's wishes and the consequences of her wish fulfillment.
Playing Jack, Scott Lupton is magnanimous and perfectly charismatic. His love for his pet, Milky White, is instantly tangible and relatable. Mix in his supple and pliant tenor instrument, and the character springs to life in a way that audiences simply enjoy and love. His rendition of "Giants in the Sky" is one of the evening's most memorable moments.
The Witch is supremely and sublimely played and sung by Wendy Taylor. In addition to her gorgeous, robust, and powerful Soprano voice, complete with a rousing belt, being pristinely on display the whole evening, she must be surprisingly athletic. When haggard and ugly for most of the 90-minute first act, she walks in a perpetual crouching squat while wearing heels, singing, and acting. Wendy Taylor is a powerhouse force on the stage that captivates and inspires with her stunning craftsmanship. Her renditions of "Stay With Me," "Witch's Lament," and "Last Midnight" are lulling, captivating, and wholly entertaining.
As Cinderella, Erin Wasmund does great work. Her melodic and enchanting Soprano instrument is fantastically employed by the role. Her renditions of "A Very Nice Prince," "On the Steps of the Palace," and "No One Is Alone" are nothing short of striking. Moreover, her Cinderella is memorable for being intelligent in addition to being beautiful. She does not swoon over the prince because he is simply a prince, she wants more from a husband than position and power.
Ronna Mansfield certainly owns Little Red Riding Hood and makes the character her own. Utilizing a kid-like, nasal voice that one would expect in 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, there is no denying that her Little Red Riding Hood is entirely an innocent-a child-which makes her rendition of "I Know Things Now" all the more beguiling and amusing.
Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine, and Colton Berry's take on Rapunzel is a wholly fascinating and unexpected characterization brought to magnificent life by Kelly Waguespck. Alternating between singing operatically in high soprano and playing a lost soul and drunken mother of two, the character is striking and just fun.
Colton Berry and Luke Hamilton do double duty as the princes and as wolves. Both are superb on "Agony" and "Agony (Reprise)." Their princes are anything but the stereotypical, ideal prince, which makes their portrayals all the more fun.
Douglas Allen Dorsten as Cinderella's Stepmother, Arianna Bermudez as Florinda, and Miatta Lebile as Lucinda all do excellent jobs illustrating the superiority complexes of their characters. They are wicked, vile, and entirely enjoyable.
Heather Hall is magnificent in her discernibly mothering portrayals of Cinderella's Mother and even as the angered and violent Giant. However, her Granny is funny and a fireball.
Blake Hartley Heatherington as Narrator, Faith Taylor as Jack's Mother, John Carmona as Mysterious Man, and Willie Alba as Steward are fantastically convincing and pleasant in their assigned roles.
Joseph Paul plays Milky White and deserves praise for spending a great deal of time hunched over. His costume uses stilts that he holds in his hands to extend his arms to the stage. This mechanism looks fantastic and creates a wonderful image of a cow on stage, and he never shows any sign of fatigue or back pain as he spends his time on stage perpetually bent over.
The Orchestra, conducted by Jane Volke, and comprised of William Luyties on Piano, Jane Volke on Keyboard, and David Lerner on Percussion offer fantastic and adroitly played accompaniment for the production. Their job includes creating perfectly placed sound effects in addition to their fantastically rendered work on the score.
In addition to directing the production, Colton Berry's work on Costume, Makeup, Hair and Set Deigns is perfect for his vision on this production. In addition to Colton Berry's work, Helena Zodrow and Wendy Taylor helped create the prop and costume pieces. The team brilliantly works natural, woodland elements into the costumes, makeup, and set, furthering the idea of the woods coming to life to tell the tale. Shining moments include the burlap sack look of the witch's haggard costume in addition to the mossy mask she wears and the giant's hands, which are made from bamboo stalks arranged to look like hands. Other elements include the branches with yellow and red leaves that do double duty as foliage and as Cinderella's birds.
Kyle Ezer's Lighting and Sound Designs ensure that every moment of the show is lit with great atmospheric colors, ranging from dim blues to vibrant greens and everything in-between, and that the vocals and orchestra balance perfectly. Stephen Sondheim is not known for being particularly accessible for audiences, but Kyle Ezer's technical work ensures that no member of the audience can claim it was the fault of the lights or sounds that they did not see or understand a certain element of this polished production.
Bayou City Theatrics' production of INTO THE WOODS was the first time I was exposed to this Stephen Sondheim score, and they certainly made me a fan of the show. From the moment that the cast made their first entrance, I felt completely connected to and engaged by the story being performed and got swept away into the tale of the far off land. I could hardly wait for intermission to be over so I could see what surprises were in store for Act II. (Especially since Act I seemingly wraps up the plots until the narrator utters, "To be continued" and gets dirty looks from the cast.) Everything about the production sparkles and works, despite the hurdles that illnesses placed in the way. (The opening night performance I saw was their first run through with all of the technical aspects in place due to several members of the cast being sick with the Flu during tech week rehearsals.) Simply put, this is a journey into the woods that you need to take. You won't want to leave.
INTO THE WOODS runs through January 20, 2013 at the Midtown Art Center at 3414 La Branch Street, Houston, TX. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.bayoucitytheatrics.com/.
All images and photos courtesy of Bayou City Theatrics.