Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the ambitious and necessary Party People by UNIVERSES at The Public Theater in New York City. Weaving oral histories of members of the Black Panthers Party and the Young Lords Party with the contemporary sociopolitical climate, Party People is an incredibly powerful multi-sensory and genre-bending performance that left me inspired (Clips here, here, and here). Come to find out, my day was teeming with inspiration, at times from the unlikeliest of places. When I left the theatre, I met with playwright Maria Alexandria Beech on Lafayette St. She had just seen The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the new documentary about Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 musical that closed after only 16 performances and has since become an iconic Broadway musical. While I was jacked up about Party People, our conversation quickly went to Sondheim (as can happen with two musical theatre nerds). “I love Sondheim. I do,” I confessed to Alex. This shouldn’t have been news, but I felt the need to tell my Twitter bestie (who I was just meeting in person for the first time!)… Sondheim inspires me (and so does Alex).
So while my brain has been in theatre overload this week, still living in the powerful performances of Party People and Vietgone, I was also looking forward to seeing Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). I was looking to be inspired in a different way.
Full disclosure: I’m an Into the Woods junkie. It’s not my favorite Sondheim show; I’m not even sure it would be in my top 5, but I love it. Whether it’s both cast recordings, the filmed Broadway version, the movie, or Fiasco Theater’s masterfully stripped-down Off-Broadway revival, I’ve enjoyed every iteration of the show that I’ve come across. So when TUTS announced their season with Into the Woods filling the slot usually reserved for holiday-themed shows, I marked it on my calendar as a must-see in the Houston theatre season.
While I’ve never been one to formally review theatre, I do want to give some takeaways from TUTS’s top-notch production of Into the Woods.
- Nearly 30 years after it first opened, there are no surprises with Into the Woods. The first act gives us the happily-ever-after of our famed fairytale characters and our lead duo—The Baker and The Baker’s Wife. Act two shows us what happens after the happily-ever-after. In short, happily-ever-after doesn’t exist. At least not as we know it. I must confess: my interest in the show begins to peak once Sondheim begins maiming and killing off characters. I’ve always enjoyed a dark musical and act two is indeed dark.
- The Baker’s Wife’s Shoes. Confession. Anytime the superb Stephanie Gibson was on stage, I simply could not take my eyes away from her shoes. I couldn’t. When she tried to give Cinderella those blue and yellow shoes, I was a little jealous that she wasn’t gifting them to me. Not that I had a gold slipper or anything, but I digress. All of this is to say that the design team knocked it out of the park. Not only were Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes well-realized across the board, but Kevin Depinet’s scenic design was lush, filling Sarofim Hall in ways I’ve seldom seen. Even so, I had a hard time paying attention to the show whenever the actors were near the lip of the stage because I was afraid they would slide right into the orchestra pit. While the design choice to have the set extend into the pit was visually appealing, it took me out of the show more often than not.
- Emily Skinner as the Witch. I’ll be honest, it took me some time to warm up to Skinner. And this isn’t entirely Skinner’s fault. One of the issues with iconic characters is that audiences inevitably will associate them with the actor who created the role. In this case, I find it impossible to think of Into the Woods and not think of Bernadette Peters. Once I forgot about Peters, I was able to live in Skinner’s world. In many ways, Skinner breaks the mold for the Witch and the opening of “Last Midnight” is just what I needed last night.
- By this point Into the Woods has surely been produced every conceivable way, but Robert Longbottom’s direction took the show to new places at times (for me, at least). The show began with a bare stage, save for a costume rack and actors dressed in simple black clothes. They ran to the rack, grabbed their costumes, and the show began. Interesting. Unfortunately, except for a few moments (such as when Cinderella gets her ball gown), this concept wasn’t revisited until the show’s finale. After killing the giant, The Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red come out in contemporary black clothes. They now seem to be reflecting on not only the story they are in, but the story they have just told. During “Children Will Listen,” the adult actors enter dressed in black while child actors accompany them dressed in miniature versions of the iconic adult costumes. At first, I questioned this choice, but by the end of the song, it put a smile on my face. If anything, I thought it was a beautiful touch to give these kids an opportunity to perform in a professional production of Into the Woods.