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Into the Woods
Into the Woods is not my favorite Sondheim which is rather surprising, considering I was raised on and relished fairy tales and have an interest in the power and development of myth. Jung's archetypes and Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, both sources for this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine production, are old friends of mine.
Maybe it's the chamber music form Sondheim has chosen. Although the haunting "Stay With Me", the Witch's plea to her child Rapunzel, and the two smitten Princes' delicious patter song "Agony" are vintage Sondheim, "Into the Woods", the oft-repeated theme song, begins to plod in one's brain like "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water." This is slyly intentional but, in my favorite line from the show firmly declared by Red Riding Hood after her seduction by the wolf, "Nice is different from good."
Maybe it's a matter of admiring the cleverness of the lyrics and the skill with which the tales have been woven together without becoming drawn in by the characters. It's hard to relate to an archetype playing an emotion, however well done. Though this cast was fine, only Adam Wylie as Jack succeeded in being emotionally moving.
Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and the Witch, Jack the Giantkiller, the childless Baker and His Wife go into the woods for different reasons. Each has a wish: Cinderella for her prince, Red Riding Hood for the primrose path, Rapunzel for escape from her mother the Witch's tower, the Baker and his wife for a child, Jack (at his mother's behest) for gold. In Act II they meet the dark side of their dreams, as the superficiality of their wishes surfaces like smog, and results in disaster from the sky, in the form of the Giantess Jack widowed. The play consoles, not with a happy ending, but with a course of action on which the characters can agree. Oddly enough, situations that seem dramatically clichéd on stage read beautifully as poetry.
Personal prejudice aside, there's much to applaud in this revival of the 1989 Tony-winner. 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.
It's a gorgeous, enjoyable and excellent production, headed by the gorgeous, enjoyable and mellow-voiced Vanessa Williams as The Witch. Molly Ephraim's Riding Hood is a real little girl, precise, tart and anathema to cute. Douglas Schmidt makes a statement by setting his stage with three symmetrically placed volumes, neat as pillars of the real world, which open to reveal their stories, then segue into a bewitching shadow-haunted forest.
Costume Designer Susan Hilferty uses warm colors, makes bright punctuation marks of the men, trails lots of fragile floating fabrics on the fairy princesses and creates a scarlet second act gown for Vanessa Williams that could win an Oscar all by itself.
Director James Lapine, who also wrote the book, has a flair for the delicate and sharp. Nothing drags. Nothing blares. With a sure instinct for the uses of enchantment, he demonstrates how a giant beanstalk can be created out of beans of varying weights and values.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp' s editor.
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