I'll say it. I'm an Into the Woods snob. I remember when PBS broadcast the Original Broadway production back in 1991. I remember my parents taping the show on VHS for my sister and I. I remember that my sister and I watched it so often that the tape broke, was fixed, and then broke again. I remember rejoicing when that same production was later released on DVD. When in college, I wrote a 20 page paper about the show, and I've seen countless of regional, amateur, and school productions over the years.
Indeed, when it comes to Into the Woods I am a tough critic to please. I have many a pre-conceived notions about how the show can and should be produced, and I can be quite stubborn and fickle.
That is why I am very pleased to say that Texas State University – San Marcos's current production of Into the Woods is easily the best live production of the show that I have yet to see. This winning cast, smart director, and wonderful creative team have created an Into the Woods that is charming, funny, heartfelt, and entertaining above all else.
Into the Woods, arguably Stephen Sondheim's most recognizable and well-known work, follows the fairy tale characters of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (often associated with a beanstalk), and a Baker (Rapunzel's brother) and his wife on their quest for their respective happily ever afters. After they all get what they want in Act One, they are faced with a terrible foe in Act Two and must band together, something these self-serving characters are not accustomed to.
Given the plot and the drastic differences in tone between Act One and Act Two, Into the Woods is often criticized for feeling like two separate shows. However, Director Michael Costello manages to tie the opposing acts together, and in his hands this is a completely cohesive show. Act One is hysterical and slapsticky, almost like a children's theatre production of fairy tale favorites, and while Act Two is certainly darker and heavier, Costello highlights Sondheim's signature dark, biting humor. While I was puzzled by some of Costello's choices, particularly the anachronisms like the convertible driven by Cinderella's Prince and Jack's jeans and cell phone, overall his direction is solid.
Costello's design team is also faultless. The costumes by Sheila Hargett are often elaborate and beautiful (The Witch's Act Two costume and Cinderella's gowns are particularly eye catching) or humorous and whimsical. Her choice to give one of the Stepsisters a parody of Princess Beatrice's infamous toilet seat hat is inspired and appropriately over the top. Christopher Sousa-Wynn's set, consisting of tall screen panels with painted trees, is simple and elegant but very effective, and Jesse Wyman lights the set with beautiful midnight blues and purples. Musical Director, Pianist, and Conductor Greg Bolin excels with Sondheim's complex score, and his orchestra sounds so strong I wondered for the first 15 minutes if they were pre-recorded. My compliments also to Choreographer Cassie Abate for finding movement-ready moments in a musical that is often empty of dance. Her work on "It Takes Two," the duet between the Baker and his Wife is memorable for its simplicity and its cuteness.
But like most Sondheim musicals, Into the Woods is a mess if not performed by a capable cast, and Texas State San Marcos has one of the most extraordinary casts I've seen perform this work. The entire cast is fantastic. Each and every one of them is believable as their individual characters, and the few full-cast numbers, particularly the finale, are goosebump inducing. Standouts include Jessica de Jong as the emotionally conflicted Cinderella, Ian Saunders as the stubborn but often adrift Baker, and Anne Hathaway look-alike Annie Wallace as the Baker's Wife, clearly the brains of the bunch. Alex Zeto also gives an outstanding turn as the Witch, a role that seems effortless for her and her gorgeous voice. However, it is a quartet of comedians who steal the show. The princes, played by Landon Zwick and Stephen Brower, and Cinderella's stepsisters, played by Matilde Bernabei and Erin Erxleben, are the hands down crowd favorites. Every moment they're on stage is theater gold. They enter and exit with absurdly funny flourishes and milk every comic moment for all its worth. Especially during the heavy second act, their presence is most welcome.