Into the Woods: Christopher Carl is the big bad wolf, and Tracy Katz Paladini is Red.
Into the Woods: Christopher Carl is the big bad wolf, and Tracy Katz Paladini is Red.
Bruce Bennett

Warts and All

Fairy tales are simple: Good is always fair of face, and evil is covered with warts. Leave it to Stephen Sondheim to muddle this easy equation with his wonderfully paradoxical Into the Woods. Written with librettist James Lapine and based on such familiar tales as Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, the 1987 Tony Award-winning musical wanders into a very un-fairy-tale-like world. As rendered by Theatre Under the Stars under Glenn Casale's competent direction, it is full of grown-up woe and painful truths -- the sort that occur soon after the magic of "happily ever after" wears off.

The first act is little more than a lengthy setup for the more powerful Act II. The baker (Lenny Wolpe) and his wife (Mary Gordon Murray) must go into the woods to break the spell that has kept their house childless. Both Wolpe and Murray bring enormous heart to this production along with fine voices that manage to make Sondheim's often difficult melodies seem like child's play. Along the way they meet up with a collection of familiar characters, including a fiery Red Riding Hood (played like a smarty-pants from hell by the daintily droll Tracy Katz Paladini), a clumsy Cinderella (Kim Huber) and a dim-witted Jack (Daniel Frank Kelley). All have their troubles.

The funniest woes come from two very dashing princes who sing "Agony," about the difficulties of trying to look good while saving the world. Both Christopher Carl as Cinderella's Prince and Jeff Barnett as Rapunzel's are Ken-doll sharp as they play their dream-date parts to the hilt. The dark-eyed Carl is especially beguiling later on when we discover that "nice is not the same as good" and that charm can gloss over the most dastardly deeds.


Into the Woods / St. Nicholas

Into the Woods
Through December 16 at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway, 800-678-5440. $18-$57.

St. Nicholas
Through December 22 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. $22.

At the close of the first act, all is well. Cinderella has her prince; poor, addled Jack has his golden harp; and the baker and his wife are going to have a baby. In fact, the story seems so complete that two high-heeled young women on opening night decided that the show was obviously over and strolled right out the door. Of course, Sondheim, who brought us the murderous tale of Sweeney Todd as well as the bitterly sad story of Company, would never be satisfied to leave his characters in such half-baked bliss. Instead, Into the Woods takes a sharp turn at the top of the second act, sending us into some very melancholy and musically gorgeous territory, where we discover just what happens to those fairy-tale characters after their dreams come true: love, betrayal, loss, death, revenge and more death.

"Last Midnight," sung by a full-voiced Leslie Uggams as the musical's requisite Witch, is full of the complex chords and urgent rhythms that Sondheim is famous for. The ominous song warns of the lies and broken promises that will come to anyone who dares to go into the woods, where the dark complexities of life lie waiting to be discovered. The finale, "Children Will Listen," is one of the show's loveliest tunes, circling back to the idea of fairy tales and the lessons learned through myths. But the lessons Sondheim teaches are far more heartbreaking and difficult than those any children's story could impart: "The way is dark, the light is dim…Into the woods you have to grope, but that's the way you learn to cope." Try saying that at bedtime.

The jaded theater critic who holds court in Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas, now running at Theater LaB, has absolutely nothing in common with the fat jolly fellow most folks think of at this time of year. Indeed, this red-nosed Irish bloodsucker is as vile as they come. In the course of his 90-minute monologue, the nameless Critic spins yarns about everything from his whiskey-soaked days of bad behavior to the meaning of art to the eve he met William, a vampire, in a dusky park.

McPherson, whose plays about storytelling (most notably The Weir) have earned him multiple awards and a reputation as a spellbinder, has created a strange, dark script with St. Nicholas. The Critic, who sits in a pub telling his tale over glasses of Cutty Sark, begins with his former life. He once wielded great clout with his critical pen, ripping the plays he saw and inspiring fear in the actors he wrote about. "I was a fat bastard," he says. "I had lots of what I thought power was…Editors licked the hole off me." But for all his "power," he wasn't happy: "Mostly what I felt was jealous. I had no ideas, no ideas for a story." The critic wanted to be an artist. And once he fell for a young actress, his days of "drunken pigheadedness being passed off as authority" were numbered. After one especially debauched night, he hooked up with William the vampire, who could give the Critic the story and the spine to become what he always wanted to be: a playwright.

This long, odd narrative about obsession and desire is utterly dependent on the teller. Since the actor playing the Critic is on stage alone for an hour and a half, he simply must be Irish. As anyone who saw poet Seamus Heaney read last spring knows, the booming growl of a true brogue can resonate with an ancient fist-to-the-heart kind of regret and mystery. At Theater LaB, William Hardy plays the Critic as a burly, embittered old fart. The Alley Theatre vet does a competent job with the accent, but he never settles comfortably into the lilting song of the real thing. And the weird stories the Critic tells never move with the urgent, incantatory music this difficult play needs to make it work. Also, director Jim Phillips has placed the whole thing in a bar that looks more like an East Texas icehouse than an Irish pub; the choice undermines the magical possibilities in this script about wild nights of drinking and slatternly lady vampires.

The resulting production is laborious rather than spellbinding. Slow is the going through much of this material, bizarre though it may be. Even the jokes about the Critic's "fat track-suit wife" lose their punch. Still, McPherson has gained such a reputation as one of Ireland's hottest young playwrights that we might be grateful to Theater LaB for bringing the hard script to Houston and showing us a bit of what the fuss is about.


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