Into the Woods
Thru Feb 16
$10
Main Street Theater
2540 Times Blvd
713-524-6706
mainstreettheater.com 

In the world as we know it, there are Democrats and Republicans, carnivores and vegetarians, boxers-wearers and briefs-wearers, Sondheim lovers and Sondheim loathers. There are those who won’t die happy unless someone mounts a Broadway revival of Anyone Can Whistle, and those who’d rather die than see one, those for whom a little night music is still too much, for whom Company isn’t profitable, for whom the title Follies is apt on multiple levels, for whom another date with the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about as enticing as a Fleet enema. 

We of course are professionally bound to resist formal affiliation with either camp. Still, we don’t mind admitting that Main Street Theater’s revival of Into the Woods was not something we were especially, well, into. In addition to our Sondheim predilections, we also tend to prefer orchestra pits that consist of more than a single piano, and our fairy tales to be told straight. 

Into the Woods is the surprise of the season, a superb and revelatory production that will leave you with a new appreciation for the possibilities of musical theater itself.

If you are now getting the idea that Main Street Theater could not have drawn a worse hand in selecting this particular critic, we can’t help but agree. Then again, while it’s nice to be loved by one’s acolytes—think Veep Biden during his boss’s recent State of the Union address—isn’t there a sweetness in being embraced by one’s detractors? And so, as much as it pains us to admit it (not to mention cast our lot with Boehner and his neon ruddiness), we are prepared to admit that Into the Woods is the surprise of the season, a superb and revelatory production that will leave you with a new appreciation of the show, its authors, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, indeed a new appreciation for the possibilities of musical theater itself.

Main Street’s greatest strength here is in its ensemble, almost all of whom sing as well as they act, and, more importantly, act as well as they sing. Under Andrew Ruthven’s lucid and winning direction, the 12-person cast transforms Into the Woods, a show that can seem gimmicky in plot, arrogant in rhyme, and tone deaf in melody, into an elegant meditation on courage and resolve.  

The script imagines a fairytale the Brothers Grimm might have written but didn’t, that of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who have been cursed by a Witch. The pair will remain childless, she tells them, unless they can collect certain items from characters in stories the Grimms did write—Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel—in their travels through the woods.

As you might expect, Into the Woods is catnip for set designers, who tend to opt for either a very real depiction of the attendant forestry or a very fanciful depiction of same, lavish and expensive options both. Interestingly, much of the Main Street production’s appeal comes courtesy its limitations. The minuscule playing space (as musicals go, anyway) permits neither elaborate staging nor a pit full of musicians. And so, by necessity, this is a Woods that exudes modesty from every pore. But here’s the thing: modesty is at the heart of the show’s fairytales too. 

Jack wants only a cow that gives milk, Cinderella to go to the ball, Red Riding Hood to visit her grandmother’s house, the Baker and his Wife to have a child, and so on. In the Main Street setting, such desires don’t seem like fantastic, allegorical wishes at all, but the completely real, if humble, human wishes they are. The intimate staging and minimal accompaniment (under the smart musical direction by Claudia Dyle) allow its actors to speak without declaiming and sing without doing so full-throttle. This too adds to the simplicity of the proceedings, giving songs like “No One is Alone” a quiet, lullaby quality that greatly reinforces the show’s theme of parenting and its consequences. As it happens, the “No One is Alone” quartet is this production’s finest moment, in part because it unites four of the company’s best singing actors, David Wald (the Baker), Crystal O’Brien (Cinderella), Kasi Hollowell (Red Riding Hood), and Marco Camacho (Jack). In their hands, Sondheim’s song seems less a treacly anthem than a lamentation, and a gorgeous one at that.

As stated, the entire cast is superb, and we can’t help mentioning too the contributions of Amanda Passananate as the Baker’s Wife, whose “Moments in the Woods” is deeply affecting, and the Witch of Christina Stroup, whose “Last Midnight” is terrifying at a minimum.

In short, Main Street’s Into the Woods is highly recommended, an evening of power and humor and honest emotion such that you don’t often get to see, especially in musicals, and perhaps especially especially in Sondheim musicals.

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