Theatrical Shadow-puppet Brilliance Bathed in Blood Red

All fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time,” but what happens after “The End?” In Houston Family Arts Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, we follow favorite characters from Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault as their stories intertwine with the unifying idiom: be careful what you wish for.

The payoff starts before the lights even dim, as the elaborate scenic design by Kiara Steelhammer – her first for this venue – has all the production values of a Disney theme park, sans the animatronics. Rounded edges, multiple levels, stairs, ramp, moss-covered stones, and a forest full of trees serve as the magical backdrop for a rustic kitchen with storybook window, a fireplace vignette and a handcrafted farmhouse door.

The play begins with the Narrator uttering the familiar words “Once upon a time.” The opening number, “Prologue: Into the Woods,” introduces us to the original story of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who desperately want to have a child. We meet Cinderella and her extended, uncaring family; she longs to attend the King’s festival. Jack (as in “and the Beanstalk”) and Jack’s Mother wish that their cow, Milky White, would produce milk, while Little Red Ridinghood wishes for bread for her grandmother. The ugly old Witch throws down the gauntlet, offering hope for the barren couple if they find four ingredients within three days’ time, a challenge that carries the story through the first act.

It’s an ambitious production, with 25 actors portraying 28 parts over the course of the almost three hour play (2:40). Director Sam Brown manages to introduce depth to most of the characters – though not all – electing to have onstage actors freeze when their spotlights are dark, rather than continue with background activities. He cleverly has Morgan Montgomery playing scene-stealing Little Red as a saucy, precocious and food-greedy little girl who devolves into a knife-carrying, wolf-pelt-wearing maniacal giant-hunter, only to later redeem herself with maternal kindness. Brown’s handling of the scene where the wolf’s stomach is cut open to free Little Red and her grandmother is theatrical shadow-puppet brilliance bathed in blood red; it’s shocking and riveting with a touch of humor. There’s one odd moment early on where the wolf crawls into a tree hole and then climbs back out; it doesn’t seem to have purpose other than the set piece is so fantastic it needs to be used somehow. Without giving too much away, there’s one manic scene in act two where defunct characters traipse on and off stage issuing one cliché after another; it’s fast-paced, lesson-riddled madness.

We care about the childless couple, with strong performances from Taylor Fisher and Jennifer Stewart, as we watch them wrestle with their inner demons, “if the end is right it justifies the means.” Christopher C. Conway’s melodic voice is perfect for the Narrator, as he moves the story along until he unwittingly becomes part of the tale. Jordi Viscarri is believable as the naïve and obedient boy Jack, trying to balance duty to mother and love for best friend, Milky White, as he careens from one dilemma to the next.

What originally seems strange – a lack of chemistry between the heroines and their charming princes – makes complete sense as the story unfolds in the second act. Nicole Norton’s Cinderella develops into a practical and very un-Disney-like strong woman, while we learn the downside of being married to a devastatingly charismatic Prince Charming, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” as played by Larry Luck.

Costume design is spot-on, courtesy of Amber Stepanik and Ellen Girdwood, but the standout has to be the get-up for Milky White the cow, played by Clairey “The Munch” Townsend. She may have been cast due to her wee stature, but she plays Milky wonderfully as she blinks her big cow eyes and opens her mouth wide to gobble down all sorts of items (shoes, garments, locks of hair); she’s the engine to her caboose of back legs and wheel-borne udder.

The costumes are ably complemented by Erik Olmos Tristan’s hair, makeup and styling, along with technician Catherine Campbell, with the exception of the Witch and Mysterious Man. The face of the Man is so hidden by his bushy wig that it is distracting, and the Witch’s prosthetic mask makes it hard to see eye movements and facial expressions and almost seems to hamper Rachel Landon’s singing voice. Landon still knocks it out of the park, however, with her get-down witch’s rap in the opening number, and her later transformation allows her character to really bloom in full magenta-infused evilness with a touch of motherly love.

I don’t think Music Director/Choreographer Adam Delka has slept much in the past few months. Trees move effortlessly around the stage, thanks to the hidden talents of several Tree Ninjas; the characters break out into intricate dances and the final number – with the entire company onstage – is logistical perfection.

David Dean’s sound design offers delightful moments: the clinks of the magical beans being placed in Jack’s hand, the tink-tink-tink of milk into the goblet, the thunderous steps of the giant and, perhaps most importantly, keeping the soundtrack at just the right levels to allow the singers’ voices to shine through. Ron Putterman’s lighting design adds layer and moody nuance to this production by Michael Montgomery.

In an ensemble cast as large as this one, all roles are important ones. Rounding out the cast are Cody Brautigam, Catherine Campbell, Bambi Carlson, Victoria Carlson, Tyler Collins, Jana Ellsworth, Kristen Malisewski, Scott Mills, Shannon Murray, JJ Obee, Laura Hastings Renfroe, Jenna Townsend, Shane Weikel, Betsy Wilson, Katie Williams and Chris Wisdom.

Into the Woods continues through November 8, at Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant, Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 3 p.m., with one performance at 3 p.m. only on October 31, 281-587-6100,

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney