Theater Review: “Into The Woods” by Haywood Arts Regional Theatre

Kristen Hedberg, center, leads the company of HART'S Into The Woods Photo courtesy of the theater company

Haywood Arts Regional Theatre opened its impressive new facility, the Fangmeyer, with Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods. The show, which runs through Sunday, Oct. 16, gives local audiences a chance to see the legendary fairy tale mash up in an intimate setting.

Tackling a difficult show in a brand new and untested venue is an ambitious endeavor. There was much work to get the Fangmeyer ready in time, despite previous plans to have opened the facility nearly a year ago. Construction delays and timing pushed the theater’s schedule back repeatedly, and Woods became the first show in the space, rather than the fifth, as originally slated.

Director Daniel Hensley enlisted some of the region’s top talent for the production, which plays on a thrust stage (one that extends into the audience on three sides). Bringing the characters and action closer to the audience is somewhat problematic, as is the sound clarity when the full company is on stage singing. Audience members are treated to great moments up close, no matter where they sit, but will miss lyrics and lines delivered on either of the other two sides of the performance space, even if they are paying close attention. Having seen previous productions of Woods (including HART’s own 1997 production) I found myself inclined toward a more traditional staging, and was not as comfortable with the characters and tales being presented in this more direct and intimate setting, where you feel like you could reach out and touch performers at any time.

Charles Mills gives a great performance as the baker, but his deeply tragic moment of grief over a death is lessened by the fact that he’s grieving someone who was stepped on by a giant from the Jack and The Beanstalk tale. Such moments ask viewers to suspend belief. For what its worth, audience members clearly were not bothered by it and responded to the production with cheers and a standing ovation.

The caliber of talent on stage is almost universally praiseworthy, including Heather Bronson as the sassy, savvy and slightly scary Little Red Riding Hood. Dwight Chiles gives a charmingly childlike portrait of Jack. Strother Stingley doubles up as Jack’s cow, Milky White, and the Big Bad Wolf, nearly stealing the show every time he graced the stage.

Another pair of scene-stealers are the two princes, who are both charming and clueless. Rod Leigh and David Anthony Yeates get two spectacular songs that they share, singing of their “agony” over their princely plights. Leigh’s prince pursues and woos Cinderella (well sung by Tabitha Judy), while Yeate’s prince liberates Candice Owen’s histrionic Rapunzel from her imprisonment in a tower. Owen is hysterical as the screeching, wailing, screaming Rapunzel. Kristen Hedberg provides a solid center for the show in the complex role of the witch, which she plays with relish. She is a stand-out vocalist who makes Sondheim’s complex music sound easy. Hedberg is dazzling in the role, transforming from the witch to her more human form half way through (though it would have been stronger had the transformation moment been done on stage, rather than having her exit and return).

HART has plenty to be proud of with its new facility and this compelling production. The staging is minimalist, but the lighting is used to create wonderful moods and project shadows upon the massive rear projection panels, giving impressions of larger scale and special effects that add to the fantasy unfolding onstage.

WHAT: Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim
WHERE: Haywood Arts Regional Theatre, 250 Pigeon St., Waynesville, harttheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 16. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $8-$26

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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