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A CurtainUp Review
Into the Woods

By Elyse Sommer

. . . though scary is exciting, nice is different.
--- Little Red Riding Hood giving voice to a child's ambivalence.
Greg Edelman and Christopher Sibert (who play two princes and two wolves) with Molly Ephraim
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
In her excellent biography of Stephen Sondheim, Meryle Secret describes the birth of Into the Woods as midwifed by Sondheim and his longtime creative partner James Lapine's desire to come up with a musical that was bright, lighthearted and funny. The first act fully realized the desired bright-light-funny mood. But, given both men's tendency to inject their melancholy view of life into their work, the darkness of the woods turned the happily-ever-after finale of act one on its head during act two.

According to Chip Zien, the original Baker, (as quoted in the biography), the first act felt so satisfyingly finished that audiences at the pre-Broadway run in San Diego tended to head for the parking lot. He recalls hearing Sondheim tell people to go back, that the show wasn't over.

Despite mixed critical reviews Into the Woods enjoyed a 764 performance Broadway run, won numerous major awards (two of its three Tonys for best score and book) and became one of the most often produced of Sondheim works. Now, a newly staged and somewhat revised version has opened on Broadway, again preceded by a trial run in California. As Laura Hitchcock who reviewed it there for CurtainUp put it "It feels fuller somehow and has more resonance, perhaps because of the inevitable comparisons with horror from the sky and the essential bonding that is our only sure defense."

Since the Los Angeles production featured the same cast and creative team as the one I saw at a recent press preview, I won't duplicate plot details here but refer you to Laura's review which also includes a picture of Vanessa Williams before she metamorphoses into her more attractive person Into the Woods in LA. What follows thus focuses on my own somewhat different reactions to the show.

Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
To begin, listening to Sondheim's music generally and Into the Woods specifically, I always wonder at comments that his songs are not hummable. Both the cheery first act and the more intense second are loaded with solos, duets and ensemble songs that you want to hear again and again. And who but Sondheim can write lyrics with words that rhyme so sublimely and encapsulate complete little dramas.

The story-telling title song is well worth reprising. "Agony" is an amusing, character-building gift to the princes who sing it. You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by "No More." Even though I wasn't bowled over by Vanessa Williams, either before or after she cast off her ugly witch gear, "Lament " remains a powerful musical theater song. That brings us to some of the special pleasures and disappointments of the show's latest incarnation.

Laura Benanti
Laura Benanti
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
Williams, though not an ideal Witch does have considerable presence and her transformation into a glamorous beauty is a marvel. She is at her best in her very human duet with Rapunzel (Melissa Dye),"Our Little World." On a more 100% enthusiastic note, Laura Benanti's Cinderella confirms my conviction that she's got the voice, looks and acting ability to become the musical theater's most likely heir to Julie Andrews. "A Very Nice Prince" matches her up with another of this production's female assets, Kerry O'Malley, the Baker's Wife.

As for the male characters, John McMartin is an able and genial narrator (also doubling as the Mysterious Man), but top honors go to Greg Edelman and Christopher Sieber as two pricelessly funny princes. They do full justice to their "Agony" duet and, in a change from the original production which featured a lone wolf, they get to play sibling beasts as well as royals. Edelman is particularly funny as Cinderella's suitor whose roving eye prompts "Any Moment" with the Baker's Wife and an interchange that has him shrugging off his infidelity with "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."

Adam Wylie is an appealing Jack. His mother, as played by Marylouise Burke, is best described by the comment by the Baker's wife upon finding herself in the arms of Cinderella's prince: "What am I doing here. I'm in the wrong story." Burke, a fine comic actress, seems to be, if not in the wrong story, in the wrong genre with singing capabilities that are, to put it mildly, meager.

Molly Ephraim's real little girl Red Riding Hood cum fox is, as our LA critic aptly summed it up, "precise, tart and anathema to cute." Stephen De Rosa, whose work I've enjoyed in a number of other plays, seems to have been directed to keep his comic gifts in check for his portrayal of the Baker. He does nevertheless manage to bring an endearing quality to the role and capture the wistful sadness of "No More." The cast's strengths generally are built on acting and singing but not dancing talent so John Carrafa has wisely kept the dancing a lot simpler than his inspired and high energy choreography for Urinetown.

The staging overall is bewitchingly, storybook perfect. Douglas W. Schmidt has created giant volumes of story books that fly open into a world reminiscent of Arthur Rackham's illustrations. He has inventively used the spine of one of those books as Rapunzel's tower. Brian MaDevitt, a wizard in his own right, casts the forest into haunted, shadowy light. Susan Hilferty contributes her usual savvy skills as costume designer. She has outdone herself with the outfit that makes Milky-Way a deliciously, expressive character -- with an adept assist from the actor turned life-sized puppet, Chad Kimball.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)
There is a tendency for the musical numbers to end with the sort of pause for applause typical of ballet or opera. The long first act feels more finished than ever and a number of people around me did indeed get up to leave, partly because they were unfamiliar with the show and partly because ninety-minute intermissionless shows have become something of a norm. While there's apparently been some trimming since Los Angeles, additional tightening would benefit family audiences (I'd recommend ages 9 and up). Still, the flaws fade in the face of Mr. Lapine's clever if somewhat moral heavy book and the wonderful music, lyrics, and staging -- not to mention that scene stealing bovine charmer, Milky-White.

A footnote: Though not listed in the program, the recorded voice of the Giant's Wife belongs to none other than Dame Judi Dench.

Into the Woods in LA
CurtainUp review of Stephen Sondheim, a Life
Into the Woods-- original cast DVD
Into the Woods-- original cast NTSC
Original Cast CD
Original LondonCast CD

Book/Director: James Lapine Music &Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim Choreographer: John Carrafa
Cast: Vanessa Williams (Witch), Laura Benanti (Cinderella), Gregg Edelman (Cinderella's Prince), Christopher Sieber (Rapunzel's Prince), Melissa Dye (Rapunzel), Kerry OMalley (Baker's Wife), Stephen DeRosa (Baker), Adam Wylie (Jack), Marylouise Burke (Jack's Mother), Molly Ephraim (Little Red Riding Hood), Trent Armand Kendall (Steward), Pamela Myers (Cinderella's Stepmother), Tracy Nicole Chapman (Florinda), Amanda Naughton (Lucinda), Dennis Kelly (Cinderella's Father) and Chad Kimball (Milky-White). Ensemble cast members also include: Stephen Berger, Adam Brazier, Jennifer Malenke, Linda Mugleston, Pamela Myers, Kate Reinders .
Set Design: Douglas W. Schmidt
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Musical Director: Paul Gemignani
Broadhurst, 235 West 44th Street (8/9th Aves) 212/ 239-6200, 800/432-7250
From 4/13/02; opening 4/30/02
Tuesday - Saturday @8PM. Wednesday and Saturday @2PM. Sunday @3PM -- $40 - $95
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 23rd performance.
Musical Numbers
Act One

  • Prologue: Into the Woods/Company
  • Hello, Little Girl/Wolves, Little Red Ridinghood
  • I Guess This Is Goodbye/Jack
  • Maybe They're Magic/Baker's Wife
  • Our Little World/Witch, Rapunzel
  • I Know Things Now/Little Red Ridinghood
  • A Very Nice Prince/Cinderella, Baker's Wife
  • Giants in the Sky/Jack
  • Agony/Cinderella's Prince, Rapunzel's Prince
  • Stay With Me/Witch
  • On the Steps of the Palace/Cinderella
  • Ever After/Narrator, Company
Act Two

  • Prologue: So Happy/Company
  • Agony/Cinderella's Prince, Rapunzel's Prince
  • Lament/Witch
  • Any Moment/Cinderella''s Prince, Baker's Wife
  • Moments in the Woods/Baker's Wife
  • Your Fault/Jack, Baker, Witch, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood
  • Last Midnight/Witch
  • No More/Baker, Mysterious Man
  • No One Is Alone/Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Baker, Jack
  • Finale: Children Will Listen/.Witch, Company
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