WARNING! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Full, 100% disclosure here: I looooooooooove “Into the Woods,” as written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The first act is perfect, a show unto itself, and the second act is dark, real, full of heart and better than most full musicals out there. I performed the role of the Witch at UCLA, have seen the Bernadette Peters version via VHS countless times, and saw the Vanessa Williams version when it came around to Los Angeles many years ago. I know it by heart. Pete, my husband, actually loves the second act more than the first act, but he’s a Stephen Sondheim fan in general (he likes the gritty ability of Sondheim to comment on life in all its political/social/sexual manners). So, I was eager to grab tickets to The Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park’s version a the Delacourt Theater in Central Park. It was my first time attempting to get free Shakespeare in the Park tickets! And it was not bad: after waiting from 6am-1pm on my yoga mat under a tree (not a bad way to spend a warm but overcast and not-too-hot morning), I grabbed two free tickets for my husband and I as an Anniversary treat.
It was a fun experience – we had popcorn at our seats (before the show started as to not annoy our fellow audience members), sipped from cans of beer, and watched the show with full view of the stage. And here’s the quick reviw from someone who loves reinterpretation and experimentation with already well-known pieces of art: it was 50/50 for me. Now the long review: In general, I liked the set (although too much action was done on the second tier and I had a hard time figuring out where the voices were coming from onstage at certain moments – they needed spotlights or stillness from everyone else while the main action took place). The use of puppetry was appreciated (the Giant herself is pretty stunning), and while I liked the reinterpretations of the Fairy Tale icons into modern street-wise archetypes, the impact of having idealized “Disney”-like characters go through real-life problems (which is Sondheim/Lapine’s whole POINT of writing the show in the first place) was lost. I liked the Grimm-esque play on people going blind/feet being hacked away at/the dead rising, and Grandmas getting eaten, but other more graphic representations of Fairy Tale plot points (Little Red getting “eaten” by the wolf before getting eaten by the Wolf) was too on-the-nose, and took away the subtext from the monologue-songs that came after. And other changes from the original didn’t make sense – Baker’s Wife becoming instantly pregnant at the same time the Witch transforms (why distract from the Witch’s amazing transformation, and did the Baker have any part in this???), Rapunzel’s twins becoming bones in the Witch’s hands for no discernible reason (woah! The director killed off two infants for no reason!), and the entire structure of having the Narrator be a boy – and thus the entire show is in his head – was an interesting choice, but not an effective one.
See, when it’s just a Narrator (general male or female, no backstory, plain and “everyman” in the Western World of Storytellers kind of way), WE fill in the blanks of how these Fairy Tales connect with our lives, how we treat our children, and force us to think about our reality, our wishes, our plans of having a perfect fairy tale ending. When it’s framed within a boy’s mind (one troubled by the stresses of familial strife at home), we are seeing it only from his point of view. So when the Witch sings “Children Will Listen” to the boy and his real father at the end of the show, the audience is not included in the picture – we are detached from it – and the emotional impact fades away. Plus, the boy’s first words “Once upon a time” was not to US, but to himself as he plays with his toys. If he was directed to imagine a captive audience that he could tell a story to (I remember sitting my Mother down and forcing her to watch me act out musicals as a kid), then I could get more behind the construct. I was all ready to ball my eyes out at the end (I mentioned to my husband that I was sorry I didn’t bring tissues), but I didn’t. I got the overall concept intellectually, but it distanced me from the real impact of the story and the message it contained.
And while I could criticize my fellow actors, I won’t…too much. I really enjoyed the throaty Donna Murphy as the Witch, spunky Sarah Stiles as Little Red, nerd-with-a-makeover Jessie Mueller and Cinderella, Josh Lamon as the Steward (a role that can often steal the show), the glorious singing by Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) and Cinderella’s Mother (Laura Shoop), and the hilarious Princes/Wolf (Ivan Hernandez and Rapunzel’s Prince by understudy Paris Remillard). However, one of the biggest issues I have is that musically a lot of the rest of the cast couldn’t sing this show. Notes were dropped in exchange for “acting” the lyric, low and high notes couldn’t be reached, harmonies clashed, and when the entire group sang in unison it sounded hollow. Where were the voices?!?! Chip Zien, who played the original Baker, was on stage as the Mysterious Man and I truly wanted him to put down his satchel and go “ok, guys, here’s how you sing this show with emotion and pitch at the same time…” And even though I liked the Baker’s mannerisms, he didn’t seem to be able to connect with Amy Adams’ Baker’s Wife, nor she to him. She was honestly miscast – too young, not enough wit and gut, and her jokes fell flat (but, in fairness, most of the humor in the entire production wasn’t there – only Little Red and the Princes had their characters down strongly enough to cause ripples of laughter). I also was confused by the extra ensemble members in the cast – their costumes were Fairy Tale-esque but not specific enough for me to understand why they were there. I enjoyed the in-jokes of including other Fairy Tale characters (those written in the script and those who cameo-ed out of the Director’s imagination), but the extra people on stage distracted me yet again in certain key moments and made me question why they were there (I know they were there to facilitate puppetry, clever scene decoration – loved the use of umbrellas to create the bean stalk – and maybe filling in the vocals, but these are behind-the-scenes reasons, not on-the-stage reasons). I know that this show works with the simplest of backdrops and maybe a few clever sets and props to create towers, cows, giant FX, and the like. It doesn’t need the excesses to make it work.
Even after all this, I still enjoyed watching this Sondheim classic, probably his most accessible show for audience members who cringe at singing killers (“Assassins,” “Sweeney Todd”) or who don’t want to be faced with their own relationship issues (“Company”). Some things were done brilliantly (the aforementioned Giant, the Tower itself, and the chilling way the Witch’s Mother reclaims her daughter), and even semi-effectively done Sondheim is still Sondheim. It was worth the early morning’s snooze under the Central Park tree, and I still give props for expanding on the concepts of what is now an old standard. I just wished the choices didn’t undermine the ultimate goals of the script itself.