'Into the Woods' spirited and refreshing

The rain storm that threatened to arrive at the beginning of the Friday night performance of “Into the Woods” at the Wildwood Park for the Arts didn’t appear until after the intermission. By that point, the steady rain on the roof of the theater and the occasional clap of thunder couldn’t dampen the occasion.

The Praeclara company’s production of the 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine put an underline on the fact that Central Arkansas’ theater scene finds itself perhaps as never before hip-deep in musical theater venues.

Praeclara, a young company with the slogan of “Artistry in Sound, Motion, and Mind,” rounded up a serious collection of local voices and acting talent for Sondheim’s singular, fractured take on fairy tales. This “Into the Woods” was not perfect but it was spirited and refreshing staging of a show that only seems to grow in status with each passing year.

Familiar characters of Cinderella (Shea Williamson) Little Red Riding Hood (Heather McPherson) and a Witch (Rachel Kamphausen) are thrown together with a childless baker and his wife (Matthew Tatus and Kira Keating), a boy named Jack (Kenneth Taggard) and his cow, Milky White (a mostly docile pet travelling around on wheels). Comic relief comes in the form of two princes (Juan Garcia and Matthew Burnett) – especially in the duet honoring their beautiful misery, “Agony” – and a narrator (played with nice timing and more than a little relish by Eric Harrison) who becomes food for a giant in the second half.

Directed by Bevan Keating, artistic director of Praeclara, this “Into the Woods,” which is more complicated to stage that one might otherwise assume, didn’t cheat on spectacle but didn’t clutter up the stage either. This approach paired nicely with the small but distinctive four-piece backing band that never flagged. Populated with performers who identify as singers first and actors second, the cast struggled at times with lines that could not be heard and understood. Certainly the storm didn’t help matters either.

Still, there were a number of strong vocal moments such as Matthew Tatus’s wrenching “No More” and McPherson’s “I Know Things Now.”

The most important part of the night was that the ensemble did demonstrate why this dark musical keeps popping up on the season of musical theater companies. The characters of tales that we think we know are examined and exposed in an unexpected but stirring way. It’s not kids stuff and it’s worth sitting through a little rain to soak it in.

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