Into the Woods

Local Arts Reviews

Into the Woods: A Few Bright Trees in a Deep, Dark Forest

Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater,

through August 10

Running Time: 2 hrs, 45 min

In Into the Woods, creative duo Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have woven well-known fairy tales into a darkly funny fable about what happens after happily-ever-after; it's all about the ambiguity, fear, and loss involved in getting what you want. The strength of the piece comes from Lapine's intelligent book and the dissonant, gorgeous music that Sondheim is known for. Which makes for a wonderful night of theatre, right? Well, ... not necessarily.

Into the Woods is Zilker Theatre Productions' Summer Musical in Zilker Park. If you're just looking for something to do that's free, lively, and outdoors, this might be perfect for you. However, if you're looking for a tight, polished, well-executed production of a Sondheim musical, Zilker's Into the Woods will probably disappoint. Although several performers are excellent, the orchestra is good, and the Austin summer-night atmosphere is as laid-back and fun-loving as ever, this production is fraught with problems, from technical glitches to set-design issues to actors' difficulties handling the musical demands of the show.

On the night I attended, sound problems plagued the show from the first scene. They ranged from a nasty buzzing that persisted throughout entire musical numbers to short-circuiting microphones, which resulted in the silence-with-mouths-moving that's charming in a kung-fu movie but painful in a work of musical theatre. This wouldn't have been so frustrating had actors not exited the stage with mic problems and returned onstage with the same mic problems, unsolved. I would think that more could be expected from a company whose work depends so completely on amplification.

The set, consisting of stacks of huge storybooks with colorful spines, has a cheerful charm and features surfaces of varying heights, allowing for good visibility from the hillside. But these surfaces are sharply raked, which on the night I attended led to one terrifying moment when an actress accidentally rolled off a platform and fell at least four feet to the stage below -- not the kind of thrill we're looking for when we go to the theatre. Several staged pratfalls take place on these platforms during the show, leading me to wonder whether other accidents are imminent.

The main disappointment here, though, is the tenuous grip that some of the performers have on Sondheim's superbly complex, albeit notoriously difficult, music. There were cracking voices, flat notes, and times when the tempo of the actors' singing was at odds with that of the orchestra. Sondheim's multipart patter is said to be difficult to master, but it's par for the course with his music; if you choose to produce a Sondheim musical, perhaps you should first be sure that you have singers who can handle the vocal acrobatics.

Exceptions to this unfortunate situation were Damon Brown and Dustin Gooch (two truly charming Princes), Jill Blackwood (Cinderella), charismatic diva Coty Ross (the Witch), and the golden-voiced Ernie Pruneda as fresh, guileless Jack. Mr. Pruneda's "Giants in the Sky" sent chills down my spine, as did Ms. Ross' damning, electric "Last Midnight." As staged by Kevin Archambault and Ginger Morris, the show did offer some humor, good acting and a bit of crisp choreography, with the group numbers being especially strong, but overall, this production of Into the Woods seemed sadly off the path.

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Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine, Zilker Theatre Productions, Zilker Summer Musical, Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre, Damon Brown, Dustin Gooch, Jill Blackwood, Coty Ross, Ernie Pruneda

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