TUTS’ ‘Into the Woods’ is stellar, even if it’s not ‘local’
Like Theatre Under the Stars’ previous mainstage show, “In the Heights,” its current production of “Into the Woods,” is dominated by New York talent.
Director Robert Longbottom and actor Emily Skinner, who plays the Witch, work in Broadway, as do most of the cast and crew of Stephen Sondheim’s postmodern musical based on the Grimm fairy tales.
By casting a wide net, TUTS has crafted a show of surprising caliber. Skinner’s vocal power and magnetism on stage soars high above any musical performance I’ve yet to see in Houston, matched only by Amanda Jane Cooper, from the Hobby Center’s touring Broadway run of “Wicked,” and Jennifer Leigh Warren, from the Alley’s “A Night with Janis Joplin.”
Britney Coleman, as Cinderella, and Stephanie Gibson, as the Baker’s wife, are stellar, and Nick Bailey and Jeremy Hays, as the two charming Princes, are schmaltzy and lovable.
But these are not names people know in Houston. When half of TUTS’ season is already touring productions, the company’s focus on out-of-town talent means its identity as a local company might be up in the air.
Nonetheless, the company, helmed by the new artistic adviser Sheldon Epps, makes a strong case for its new direction, picking works that elevate musicals to a new level of relevance (“In the Heights”) and artistry (this show).
This vision of “Into the Woods” is a tribute to the original production, and the fuzzy velvet costumes (Ann Hould-Ward’s 1988 design), wonky special effects and campy technique are a throwback to the 1980s - when the Wolf (Hays) prances onstage with his oversize snout and painted abs, I thought I was at “Cats.” Here, a plastic toy cow that gets lugged around by the handle feels entirely at home.
An enticing but extraneous modern-day prelude and post-script emphasizes two elements in Sondheim’s classic: the relationship between adults and children, and the passing down of wisdom and experience through fairy tales. Though the intent is to frame the current era against mythological times, the flashes of 2016 only make the traditional costumes look dated.
Here is none of the solemnity of the 2014 film, which was shot with a Tim Burton-esque palette and sung with somber competence by Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick, nearly matching the gray dreariness of the 2012 film “Les Misérables.” Skinner’s take on the Witch has, instead, the comedic cadence of “Wicked’s” Galinda the Good Witch.
Skinner doesn’t just earn laughs. She conjures sighs and tears, and in her best moments she’s like Medusa, stunning you into stony silence. “Children Will Listen” is one of Stephen Sondheim’s emotional master strokes, a wrenching finale, that, in the hands of Skinner, asserts the importance of storytelling.
With “Into the Woods,” TUTS has raised the bar for a locally produced musical while complicating the definition of locally produced. The show, after all, isn’t so different from a Broadway show at the Hobby Center - high quality, but without the local flavor and talent of a production made by and for Houstonians.
Still, the musical is a strong first step toward a more ambitious musical theater company. I only hope that, while Epps is busy making its programming worthy of 2016 and its execution worthy of Broadway, he doesn’t forget the impact TUTS can make in Houston.
He could help create a wholly new kind of theater during TUTS’ growth, the community-based, pioneering kind that can deliver a splendid show and also foster original, homegrown work.