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Into the Woods
How great that we are invited quite literally into the woods, as spectacularly conceived by co-designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour. There we experience all the things that the Brothers Grimm didn’t tell us about Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and those ever-so charming princes.
Once again but as never before, we are reminded in British director Timothy Sheader’s brilliantly imagined concept and staging (based on his Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre London Production) how Sondheim and his collaborator James Lapine affirmed (as they previously did in collaboration for Sunday in the Park with George, and Passion) that all one needs in the theater is the perfect blending of thrilling music and lyrics, beauty, color, design, harmony, intelligence, wit and wisdom. It’s all here in abundance and best of all it’s free.
What seems to me more apparent every time I see another production is how masterfully Sondheim and Lapine were able to embrace, through contemporary sensibilities and artistic savvy, both the universality and the timelessness of these legendary fables. It is just this kind of embrace that defines Sheader’s concept: one that also casts a delightfully new spell on the Grimmsian stories. I couldn’t possibly take the time to share all the tricks that are played on some of the most famous story-book characters before and beyond “happily ever after” by both Sondheim and Lapine, but now also by Sheader, with enormously imaginative help from costume designer Emily Rebholz.
The entire cast is committed to being fully realized characters, each one with faults, foibles and idiosyncrasies that we can recognize daily in each other. Plenty has already been written about whether Sondheim and Lapine were completely successful in their mission to question the moral and ethical instincts of these immature innocents as they venture into the woods in their pursuit of happiness. But it really doesn’t matter, given how much pleasure has been derived for the past 25 years just in our questioning?
Does the prince from whom Cinderella (Jessie Mueller) is running in her trendy golden boots (no more glass slippers) really turn out to be the answer to the bespectacled kitchen wench’s prayers? Can the irresponsible giant-killer Jack (played with a wonderfully “vague disposition” by Gideon Glick) really get away with grand larceny and murder? And is Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Stiles) as altruistic as we have been led to believe? In this staging, she’s a sexually inquisitive, rebellious teen with a very wicked laugh. And what fun to see her meander through the woods wearing a red bicycle helmet and trendy red jacket.
Within the musical’s quixotically episodic context, these questions are not simply silly and comical distortions of these instructive, but mysteriously veiled parables. As the musical begins to cast its magical spell, we learn along with these edge-of-the-forest inhabitants, many of whom are not only neighbors but relatives, that getting one’s wishes in life is not necessarily deliverance from self-centeredness and immaturity. Even the well-intentioned witch learns that you can’t keep your chaste and beautiful daughter Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) locked up in a tower without her reaping serious psychological consequences that finds her, in this staging, an incompetent mother and an alcoholic.
What a wonderful idea it is to have the narrator played in this production by a young boy (an immediately ingratiating and spry Noah Radcliffe) who enters the forest with his backpack, his teddy bear and assorted toys. As he falls asleep, we enter his dreams as he becomes an integral and active part of the story.
It is the witch’s task to guide these rather self-serving characters through some earth-shaking dilemmas. The bleachers did, in fact, seem to shake and quake when the giant’s bereaved but unquestionably enraged widow makes her cataclysmic presence not only felt but seen: a huge and splendidly designed puppet whose head and arms protrude through the forest’s dense foliage.
Ivan Hernandez is winningly smarmy and seductive as the sexy, bare-chested wolf with an eye and an appetite for overly precocious little girls and doubles as Cinderella’s less-than-faithful husband (“I’ve been raised to be charming, not sincere.”). Hernandez has his best musical moment in the witty rap-like duet “Agony” (about being in love with someone else) with his brother Rapunzel’s prince (a dashing Paris Remillard). What a shame that our spirited Cinderella (Jessie Mueller), who talks to the birds and also sings for us that poignant ballad “No One is Alone,” isn’t better appreciated by her prince.
Leave it to always astonishing Denis O’Hare to give the pivotal role of the Baker a dry and wry (maybe also rye) twist. And surprise, surprise. . .who knew that O'Hare sings so well. How nice it is to see him taking a refreshing break from his role as the fiendish blood-sucking vampire on the HBO series True Blood. He is a perfect foil for his impulsive headstrong wife (an excellent Amy Adams). Kristine Zbornik, as Jack’s mother and Ellen Harvey, as Cinderella’s stepmother make grandly comical cases for eternally exploited motherhood. It's also a joy to see Chip Zien, who played the Baker in the original 1987 Broadway production, being amusingly droll as the Mysterious Man.
There is talk of a move to Broadway for this production. If that happens, we will have further proof that “wishes are children and wishes come true.”
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