UPDATED: Sondheim's Into the Woods at Main Street Captures the Great Songs and the Energy Amid Fractured Fairy Tale Dreams

The setup:

Update: Main Street has added two Wednesday performances to the run of Into the Woods: February 5 and 12 at 7:30pm.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine won Tony Awards for best score and best book for the 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods, as familiar fairy-tale characters are used to create a contemporary moral fable. Little Red Ridinghood visits her grandmother, Cinderella meets her prince, Jack grows his beanstalk, and Rapunzel lets down her hair, while a new tale is created about a baker and his wife desperate for a child. The execution:

The action is non-stop, and delightful, as director Andrew Ruthven brilliantly crams wit and joy into the intimate space of the Main Street Theater. Thirteen actors play a score of characters, and the ensemble blending pays off with style and pace, but standouts still emerge - talent will out! Christina Stroup plays a powerful Witch disguised as a crone, then sheds her rags (a wonderful costume by Macy Lyne) to reveal her beauty in a black velvet gown. Stroup dominates the stage with a vivid presence and an enchanting voice. The youthful Scott Gibbs shines with pathos as the cow Milky White - Gibbs must have the most expressive face in Houston - and serves handsomely as Rapunzel's lascivious lover. As the baker's wife, Amanda Passanante has no star turn but is consistent and credible in inhabiting her leading role. These three also project their voices beautifully, while some others do so less well, so lyrics can fade under the beat of the music.

Check out our interview with Christina Stroup.

Marco Comacho is excellent as Jack, finding his naivete, incurable optimism, and sense of adventure. Kregg Dailey is suitably sinister as the Wolf, and wears his epauletted uniform well as Cinderella's Prince. David Wald is serious and sincere as the baker, and lets us see and share in his need and anguish. Crystal O'Brien captivates as Cinderella and Lauren Dolk entrances as Rapunzel.

And the others deliver as well, often in multiple roles: Rutherford Cravens as the Narrator, Amy Garner Buchanan as Jack's mother, Katie Porterfield as a stepsister, and Kasi Hollowell as Little Red Ridinghood, They enter, they exit, they re-enter and cross stage again in the flurry and excitement of a crowded carnival, and their energy and verve create a living pageant of need, conniving and personal goals, as they are involved in the baker's quest to find four difficult ingredients the Witch has demanded.

Act One ends with the possibility of living happily ever after, but Sondheim and Lapine warn us in Act two that life is harsh, and provide murder, adultery, child abandonment and scapegoating to prove it. Act Two is necessarily dropped in productions for children, and I'm not entirely certain it couldn't be dropped in adult productions as well, so we could retain our illusions.

Some songs in the Tony-Award-winning score seem too brief, so I especially enjoyed "Agony", which lingers longer, as Gibbs and Kregg Dailey as two Princes in Act One lament the problems of pursuing damsels, and in Act Two reprise it to lament married life. As Jack prepares to sell his cow Milky White, "I Guess this is Goodbye", the parting is comically heart-breaking. After being deceived and devoured by the Wolf, Little Red Ridinghood carries a knife as she sings "I Know Things Now". The Witch shows her human side as she pleads in vain with her adopted daughter Rapunzel "Stay with Me". Everything is so interesting, speaking to the demons that reside within us all, that the genius of Sondheim and Lapine glows from the stage, through the ominous haze of reality.

The Verdict:

Brilliant writing and composing are delivered in spades in an imaginative production that involves us deeply in cherished fairy tales, while requiring us to re-think them with fresh perceptions. Main Street provides fun, more fun, and fun again in an exciting, must-see production with a highly talented cast.

Into the Woods continues through February 16, Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or contact www.mainstreettheater.com.

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