As the days get warmer here in San Antonio the nights deliver that cool mysterious breeze where it feels like anything could happen. On just such a night my partner and I headed to the Deco District to attend The Woodlawn Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s "Into the Woods." As the fog rolled off the stage into the 405-seat theatre, I felt transported into a world where anything could – and everything did – happen.
"Into the Woods" is a highly entertaining and deeply philosophical musical theatre piece that presents some of our favorite Grimm’s Fairy Tales – with a twist.
In Sondheim’s gleeful, and at times bewildering, world we encounter a baker and his wife who, having been cursed by a witch, can bear no children. The witch, who serenades us about her garden greens and frightens with her magic, sends them on a mission to recover four items to break the curse.
And what a journey it turns out to be as they encounter characters like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (from beanstalk renown), Rapunzel, and others. Be prepared, though, to stray from the classic fairy tales as "Into the Woods" explores the possibilities we tend to conveniently forget once that last happily ever after is uttered. Conundrums such as marital woes, the revenge of the giants Jack slays, and general existential angst are delightfully explored.
I saw The Public Theater’s production of "Into the Woods" at Central Park in New York this summer, and while extremely beautiful, as any million-dollar production would be, I wasn’t able to follow the show as well, and whereas Dennis O’Hare was spectacular, I felt Amy Adams delivered a lackluster performance.
At the Woodlawn, however, I knew this was going to be a much more intimate experience the moment Artistic Director Greg Hinojosa personally opened the show. Though there were some technical kinks – the volume was thunderous, as I suppose it should be – I was able to follow the dialogue much better.
I felt comfortable here, as if I was being invited into someone’s home. My senses were quickly awakened, though, as the actors delivered powerful performances. Mellissa Zarb-Cousin played Cinderella wonderfully and gave us plenty of chuckles. After the show she told me about how this character pushed her boundaries and helped her discover new aspects of herself as an actress.
Carlye Gossen portrayed a perfectly nasal Little Red Riding Hood and Rebecca Trinidad won me over with her powerhouse vocals as Jack’s mother. Let’s not forget about the men in the show who not only sung well but were also absolutely hilarious.
Trevor Chauvin as Jack was cast perfectly and delivered sass and a strong voice. In the end, though, it was Joseph Urick and Travis Trevino, as the Princely duo, who stole the show. For a wondrous night filled with hearty laughter, as well as serious introspection, head to the Woodlawn Theater. "Into the Woods" will be running until March 16 on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
But the story doesn’t end here. A few days after the show I was fortunate enough to meet with Woodlawn Executive Director Kurt Wehner, and we talked about the history of theater, how he got involved and and coming projects.
The Woodlawn originally opened in 1946 and was most recognized for being the place where the renowned John Wayne screened his film The Alamo in 1960. It was designed by noted American architect John Eberson, who garnered national and international acclaim for the palace-like atmospheric theaters he designed. The Woodlawn was a prestigious venue in the '60s and '70s, but fell on hard times and was forced to shut its doors. Various owners tried to resuscitate the theatre but none succeeded.
Enter Wehner, who worked at the theatre as executive director and then bought the space. He knew the building needed serious renovations.
“(But) we didn’t want to put money into a building that isn’t ours,” he said.
The fact that the executive director owns the property and is refortifying it with his own hands makes the Woodlawn experience that much more personal. Wehner worked in construction and home development before the Great Recession. His daughter was interested in musical theater and he started building sets for her shows – a new passion was born.
Wehner not only built the set for "Into the Woods," along with the help of the House Manager Benjamin Graybill, he also has renovated the lobby and the black box theater next door -- the The Classic Theatre's new residency. Now they are renovating the rehearsal space. The actual theater will be the final piece -- a behemoth of a project that will take a lot of funding.
“The budgets are tight, so everyone has to wear multiple hats,” Wehner said.
The Woodlawn has been a non-profit for three years now but they will not receive funding from the city's Department for Culture and Creative Development for another year. And although The Woodlawn was designated a City of San Antonio Historic Landmark in 2013, “ticket sales are (still) not enough to fund this large of an operation,” Wehner said. The theatre depends largely on donations. Despite financial challenged, the Woodlawn is maintaining its creative and cultural influence on the community.
Woodlawn also has an Academy for the Performing Arts for teens and younger children. The academy hosts more than 500 kids and puts on all types of shows, from "Aladdin Jr." to "Thoroughly Modern Millie." The teens will stage their own production of "Into the Woods" in early March.
San Antonio is still lacking in regional theater, but Wehner believes, “it will change, especially with the opening of The Tobin Center that will put a spotlight on the arts and that will hopefully bleed into ours ... For people to make a living here through theater is hard. It’s really a labor of love."
The community remains hopeful for the future of arts and artists in San Antonio. Though we may not know what lies out there in the woods of the San Antonio theater world we must remain steadfast. Cinderella reminds us that “everything will turn out fine in the end.”
*Featured/top photo by Siggi Ragnar