Into The Woods Review: Sondheim At Home In Central Park
“Shakespeare and Sondheim in the Park,” it says on the new logo used in posters and programs and t-shirts for the Delacorte Theater’s 50th season, and it is a slogan one can happily embrace – not just putting Stephen Sondheim on a par with the Bard, but also placing Sondheim “in the Park.”
“Into The Woods,” which opens tonight and has already extended its run to September 1, is the first Sondheim musical to be performed in the Public Theater’s celebrated Central Park venue normally used for productions of Shakespeare. It belongs there. Indeed, for many reasons (at least one of them personal), it feels as if Sondheim has come home.
The outdoor Delacorte seems an ideal setting for the revival of this 1987 musical by Sondheim and James Lapine that cleverly retells and subverts classic fairy tales — Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel – examining both the “Happy” and the “Ever After” with humor, insight, and feeling.
The magical atmosphere of this production (which Public Theater artistic director Oscar Eustis calls a “descendant” of London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of two summers ago) is helped along by the rustic wooded set, a kind of three-tier boy’s treehouse in a Redwood forest, designed by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour; the lighting by Ben Stanton; and some great effects by Mother Nature. The score, aided by Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, is far more lush and tuneful than you may remember.
The evening feels bracketed by the momentous. We first hear the stentorian voice of James Earl Jones, informing us he was in the first production at the Delacorte 50 years ago, and asking us to turn off our cell phones. Near the end of the three-hour show, we hear another resonating bellow, the voice of Glenn Close as the giant.
In between, there are some notable stand-outs in the cast of 22.
Donna Murphy, who won a Tony for Sondheim’s “Passion” as well as for “The King And I,” puts on the ugly latex prosthetics of the central character of the witch, and makes something beautifully vicious out of it. She is in fine voice and comic character.Jessie Mueller, who got garlands of praise for her out-of-nowhere Broadway debut in the otherwise trashed “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” here proves that her Cinderella act wasn’t a fluke. She gets to sing one of the most beautiful melodies from show, “No One Is Alone” (“Mother cannot guide you/Now you’re on our own”), which is somehow extra-delectable because she is Cinderella and she’s singing to Little Red Riding Hood. Ivan Hernandez is hilariously sexy and menacing as the wolf, and the what-enormous-eyes-you-have-Granma scene is a clever piece of stagecraft. It is as Cinderella’s Prince Charming, though – played as if he were the identical twin of Rapunzel’s Prince (Paris Remillard) – that Hernandez gets one of the best lines in the libretto, in response to an female accusation of betrayal: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
Other actors with noteworthy performances: Gideon Glick as Jack, Josh Lamon as the Steward, Sarah Stiles as Little Red Riding Hood. An extra bonus thrill for Sondheimists is the part of Mysterious Man, because it is played by Chip Zien – who played the baker in the original Broadway production 25 years ago.
Given the overall effect of this production of “Into The Woods”, it is easy to answer the bottom-line question that many New Yorkers surely have on their minds: Is it worth waiting on the long line for the free tickets? My answer is: Yes.
But as Sondheim and Lapine show us, things are rarely as simple as a fairy tale – not even a fairy tale is so simple — and my yes has…caveats.
There are in fact a surprising number of directorial decisions that strike me as misguided or at least baffling (many of them connected to casting) and several central performances that disappoint.
The one fairy tale in “Into The Woods” that is entirely the invention of the musical’s creators is that of the baker and his wife, who cannot have children because of a spell cast by their neighbor, the witch. The driving action of the first act are what the couple do to break the spell – taking an artifact belonging to a character in each of the four other fairy tales. They are not only the lynchpin of the plot. It is this couple’s modern-day sensibility – their marital squabbling, their indecision, their awkward efforts at accommodation – that establish the musical at the onset as something not just funnier but also deeper than merely a mix-and-match of fairy tales.
Director Timothy Sheader (and presumably co-director Liam Steel) has cast as the baker and would-be father, Denis O’Hare, who is 50 years old, and as his wife Amy Adams. Both are familiar faces, award-winning performers, undeniable talents – and both have done better work elsewhere. Adams sings strongly, but her acting here is bland. She has little of the comic timing or energy of Joanna Gleason (who originated the role) and doesn’t seem to come completely alive as a character until her Act II (spoiler alert) extramarital affair.
The directors arguably could not have foreseen the lack of chemistry between these central performers. But what were they thinking by casting the Narrator as a child (two children, actually – Noah Radcliffe and Jack Broderick alternate in the part)? The conceit is that he has been separated from his father during a camping trip, and the scenes that follow (could) spring from his fearful imagination. Fairy tales are told to children, not by them –and in particular these fairy tales are decidedly from an adult perspective. In addition, the radical casting change (the original Narrator was a distinguished elderly gentleman) changes the audience reaction to the grim goings-on in the second act.
There are other choices that seem to be missteps, including most of the costumes (e.g. Red Riding Hood’s red crash helmet) and wigs (I think I would have liked Adams’ performance better if her wig didn’t look like a bouffant that an Amish matron would wear.) But (it’s worth repeating) they didn’t ruin the experience for me. Perhaps this is in part because a full-flower production of a Sondheim musical is a rarer occurrence than that of a Shakespearean play. I was delighted by the revival of “A Little Night Music” (yes, even when it starred Catherine Zeta-Jones, not just Bernadette Peters), and couldn’t understand critics who trashed it based on productions three decades earlier or thousands of miles away.
It may also be my memory of one summer when I was working at the Delacorte with a fellow usher whose name I have forgotten (was it Daniel?). He was a nervous-looking blond kid – 16 at most, while I was fully 17 – but he took it on himself to cure me of my insistence that American musicals could not be considered serious theater.
It was in these very seats of the Delacorte Theater, under this very sky in Central Park, before this stage now filled with princes and wolves, giants and mysterious men, that I first discovered Stephen Sondheim.
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Into The Woods
Book by James Lapine
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Director: Timothy Sheader. Co-director: Liam Steel
Scenic designers: John Lee Beatty, Soutra Gilmour
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners.
Cast: Amy Adams, Jack Noah Radcliffe, Glenn Close, Gideon Glick, Ellen Harvey, Ivan Hernandez, Tina Johnson, Josh Lamon, Bethany Moore, Jessie Mueller, Donna Murphy, Denis O’Hare, Paris Remillard, Jennifer Rias, Laura Shoop, Tess Soltau, Sarah Stiles, Kristine Zbornik, Chip Zien
“Into the Woods” is scheduled to run until September 1. Tickets are free.
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