Presented by the Public Theater in Central Park, on Thursday, August 2.
Into the Woods is often described as Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible musical, and it probably is, but it absolutely is not as lightly pleasant and innocuous as that label might suggest. For starters, Sondheim’s mash-up of familiar fairy tales—with a book by James Lapine—uses the dark Grimm accounts of the stories, not bright Disnified versions, so Cinderella’s stepmother, for example, actually mutilates her daughters’ feet to try to squeeze them into the slipper and Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother insists that they sew stones into the disemboweled wolf’s belly to add to his torment. It’s creepy.
But even beyond that, Sondheim and Lapine are more interested in the implications of the tales then the stories themselves—the passage from innocence to experience, the relationship between parent and child, the questionable good fortune of having a wish come true—and they probe those issues with good humor but absolutely no sentimentality. Into the Woods is clever and charming and funny, yes, but also disturbing and bloody and sad. The content is accessible, and perhaps some of the songs as well (though Sondheim’s meandering, pattery tunes may be something of an acquired taste), but the themes are uncompromising—which is one of the things that makes Into the Woods such a great musical in the first place.
I honestly think director Timothy Sheader gets that. His elaborate production for Shakespeare(/Sondheim) in the Park is nothing if not ambitious, a genuine attempt to engage with the ideas in the text and find a new spin on them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work, and the sheer busy-ness of the thing is a distraction, but it’s interesting, and it features some very good performances. And ultimately, it’s an opportunity to hear “I Know Things Now” and “Agony” and “Moments in the Wood” and “Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen”—songs I adore, songs for which I know every lyric by heart—and for that, well, I can forgive a lot of awkwardness.
The musical, as written, interlocks the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel with glancing references to other tales as well as an original (though extremely traditional) story of a childless couple, here a Baker and His Wife, who yearn to start a family. Sheader’s production adds a frame: a boy who has run away from home after a fight with his father and who is, apparently, dreaming up the whole scenario. The frame hangs on the presence of the Narrator, who usually is played by the same actor who plays the Mysterious Man but here is that boy, announcing the characters and the premises, reacting to the good and bad developments, and so forth.
It’s an intriguing idea in theory, and Sheader manages to pull a nice emotional moment from the concept toward the end, but overall the device is too cumbersome too justify. All of the Narrator’s more academic, analytical lines had to be cut, and a key development in the second act, which normally feels bleakly funny in a Pirandello-ish sort of way, feels strangely unmotivated and inappropriately horrifying when a small boy is involved. Plus, Chip Zien, who originated the role of the Baker in the original Broadway production, plays the Mysterious Man this go-round (if you’re familiar with the musical, you know that that’s actually kind of poetic), and as cute-in-a-child-actor-sort-of-way as little Noah Radcliffe is, I felt rather cheated seeing Radcliffe, not Zien, playing the Narrator.
The other flashy elements of the production—a Swiss Family Robinson–esque set and contemporary-ish costumes (Cinderella as a glasses-wearing Princess Diaries–style pre-makeover case, the Mysterious Man as a homeless man, etc.)—are ostentatious but not quite so troublesome—at least in the moment. (I’m going to assume that the herky-jerky pacing when too many special effects came into play has smoothed out by now—we saw the production in previews.) But the more I think about the costumes, the less I like them. “Modernizing” the costumes implies that the storybook endings lack sparkling storybook happiness because of the time we live in now, and that’s pretty much the opposite of the musical’s more universal message.
But so far this has all been rather negative, which is misleading. In fact, Into the Woods is just so damn good that it’s virtually impossible to trample its charms. Besides, the cast, while a bit uneven, features some notable bright spots. Jessie Mueller, who plays Cinderella, has a lovely, ringing voice, sailing through her hyper-wordy solos with bright tone and crisp consonants. The two Princes (Ivan Hernandez and Cooper Grodin) have excellent comic timing together, making their “Agony” duets delightful, and Hernandez, Cinderella’s Prince, manages to make his pithy line “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” sound poignant, perhaps even tragic. Zien gives the Mysterious Man real warmth; “No More” isn’t one of my favorite songs, but hearing him sing it was a pleasure.
My favorite was Sarah Stiles as Little Red. Sean and I saw Stiles as Kate and Lucy in Avenue Q, and here she performs a similar trick to what she accomplished with the puppets, giving Red a hilariously goofy, somewhat cartoonish voice and maintaining that impeccably even as she adeptly belts a number of tricky songs. (Plus, Stiles has the perfect adorably evil little chuckle for Red. It made me laugh every time.)
I haven’t yet mentioned the two headlining cast members, but that’s not because they’re bad; I just have mixed feelings about their performances. Amy Adams, frankly, seems miscast as the Baker’s Wife. I thought that from start and truly tried to give her a chance, but in the end, though she has a very pretty voice and excellent stage presence, she simply doesn’t convey the appropriate sardonic world-weariness for the part. Donna Murphy is a better fit for the Witch; she just has the misfortune of following up Bernadette Peters, who originated the role and made it very much her own. By comparison, Murphy seemed a bit sluggish in the spoken-word numbers (“Greens, greens, and nothing but greens!”), and although she effortlessly conveys the Witch’s condescending self-assurance, she makes that attitude a shade too regal. I missed Peters’s eccentric, off-kilter nastiness.
That said, one thing I’ll happily praise about Murphy’s performance is how well she handles the relationship between the Witch and her “daughter,” Rapunzel. Objectively speaking, the Witch is an absolutely terrible mother, and Murphy doesn’t shy away from that, but she does make the woman’s twisted affections and genuine sense of loss palpable, to the extent that you have to feel for her, even as you recoil.
And it’s that kind of thing that redeems this production from all the overproduction in the sets and costumes and “concepts” and the like: the relationships at the core are basically sound. Amy Adams might not quite pull off the Baker’s Wife in isolation, but her relationship with the Baker (Denis O’Hare), strained but essentially loving, somehow works. The scenes between Cinderella and her Prince are heartbreaking, and the strange, nascent friendship between Red and Jack (Gideon Glick) is very funny and sweetly cracked. As much as anything, that’s in part a testament to the power of a good story. As Into the Woods reminds us, stories have more meaning than we credit; even an awkward telling of a good story has undeniable beauty.