Summer Stock Austin's talented teens tease out the enchantment in Sondheim's magical musical
BY ELISSA RUSSELL
Austinites have the good fortune to live in a city replete with artistic opportunities for youth and adults alike. One such staple in the youth theatre community is Summer Stock Austin, a tuition-free program that affords high school and college students the chance to perform in and mount multiple productions over the course of the summer, while collaborating with professionals in the area. Going strong since its introduction in 2004, the program's 11th season remains appealing, featuring productions of Guys and Dolls, Tortoise & Hare, and Stephen Sondheim sensation Into the Woods.
I caught Into the Woods, directed and choreographed by SSA co-founder Ginger Morris, on opening night, and the cast's energy leapt off the stage – a necessity for bringing its classic fairy tale characters to life. As you may remember, once upon a time there was a baker and his wife who would do anything to have a child, and a witch who promised to fulfill their desire if they completed a quest to obtain (sing along, now!) "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold." Along the way, the couple encounters the likes of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and beanstalk-climbing Jack. Unlike classic fairy tales, though, the show focuses on the dangers of being consumed by desire and gives us a glimpse at what happens after happily ever after.
Saying that the music in a Sondheim musical is gorgeous is almost redundant, but it's certainly worth noting that Into the Woods is widely considered to be among his most beautiful scores. Still, its music can be quite challenging, but the fine young performers here rise to the occasion, handling the complex material so capably that it's easy to forget they're not already professionals.
As the couple whose narrative drives the show, Donelvan Thigpen and Korina Lurie give excellent performances, with Lurie adding a comedic spark to the production with very witty interpretations of her lines. Also hilarious are Connor Barr and Gray Randolph as the narcissistic princes; "Agony" is one of my favorite numbers here. Adding yet more to the comedy are Sarah Yoakley, Victoria Brown, and Kalie Naftzger as Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters, all of them playing their characters' snootiness well. As Cinderella, Stephanie Toups is a joy to watch and listen to, her voice a lovely complement to Sondheim's score. And as the two youngest characters, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, Matthew Moore and Hannah Roberts are both fantastic, their performances smart, funny, and on the mark.
Theada Bellenger's set design, featuring ominous (and interactive!) vine-filled woods, and Teresa Carson's costumes are the perfect final ingredients to transport the audience to this imaginary world of witches, magic, and giants. A few snafus with sound and lighting cues were evident opening night, but they should be easily corrected during the run. Overall, Summer Stock Austin's talented teens serve up Sondheim just as well as a troupe of seasoned professionals.