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By Elyse Sommer
Updated January 8, 2014
a name="Into the Woods"> Into the Woods, the Movie
by Miriam Colin
Sondheim à la Disney. An impossible marriage? Not really!
The iconic composer-lyricist's two-sided mashup of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales has been fashioned into an entertaining, visually exciting film. Yes, it's been Disney-ized to make it more acceptable as a family entertainment but with director Rob Marshall (he also successfully transferred Chicago from stage to screen) and James Lapine doing the adapting, the Sondheimian darkness has not been ruinously over sugarcoated. There's plenty of Sondheim's scintillating score and devilishly witty lyrics to keep even musical theater purists from quibbling too much about no more "No More" and the too lite version of "No One Is Alone." Best of all, this isn't Disney in its usual cartoon mode but Disney respectfully presenting the 1987 stage musical with a large and stellar ensemble of stage luminaries.
For starters there's the witch played Meryl Streep who's as successful at every role she takes on as Disney is at producing musical fairy tales Disney is great at both musicals and fairy tales. Her witch is no exception.
But Streep is just the tip of the ensemble treats: James Corden who won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for One Man, Two Guvnors is a sure-fire Oscar contender for his touching Baker. Emily Blunt is equally impressive as his lovely but infertile wife and Simon Russell Beale as his father. And what would this cornucopia of Grimm characters be without Cinderella (a lovely Anna Kendrick) and a charming Prince (Chris Pine), Jack of the famous Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel of the golden tresses (MacKenzie Mauzy) and her rescuing prince (Billy Magnussen).
Some of the things the movie gets especially right is casting Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother and letting a real youngster, 13-year-old Lilla Crawford play a sassy Little Red Riding Hood. And yes indeed, that's Johnny Depp playing the big bad Wolf who terrorizes her and the Giant is none other than Frances de la Tour (best known to theater goers for her terrific gig in The History Boys).
Director Marshall and this versatile ensemble ably handle the Sondheim-Lapine atypical interpretation of these storybook characters. They shift comfortably from the treasure hunting style first part with its seemingly happy ending, into the more realistic world where there's no guarantee of a happily ever after life but the real traumas of our jet and cyber propelled world must be faced. And so a witch can and does lose her powers and Cinderella's Prince Charming sings "I was raised to be charming, not sincere!" Fortunately the humor and music insure that it's all more entertaining than pitch-black scary.
Unlike the stage musical which ran almost 3 hours, the movie clocks in at a trim 2 hours and 4 minutes.
Editor's Note: For a less starry but unique live revival of the show by the inventive the Fiasco Theater Company is playing at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre through March 22nd. I'll be reviewing it when it opens officially. For an idea of what to expect, see our New Jersey critic's review of the 2013 Mc Carter Theatre Center Production .
Olive Kitteredge, a potent theatrical experience on the home screen
I wouldn't recommend binge-watching the HBO adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteredge. It's so good that it deserves to be savored slowly, an episode at a time. With a cast including live theater favorites like Frances McDormand, Zoe Kazan and Peter Gallagher Jr., this is an ideal way to enjoy a high quality theatrical experience without leaving home.
What makes it such truly essential watching is the quality of the source content, character and place linked stories about the lives of the residents of a Maine coastal town, stories in which Olive and her husband Henry at times play only peripheral roles. The overall excellence of the four one-hour installments also owes much to the brilliant way tele-playwright Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko have transferred the thirteen stories of Strout's this modern human comedy has been transferred from page to screen by .
With Frances McDormand playing the caustic, tough to love but even tougher to not ultimately sympathize with title character, this is one of the most memorable performances — stage or screen — I've seen all year. Masterfully subtle and complex as McDormand portrait of the depressed, repressed and yearning for connection retired math teacher is, there are other richly expressive performances. Chief among these comes from Richard Jenkins as Olive's more sunny-natured husband Henry.
Even the actors making only occasional appearances make strong impressions; for example, Zoe Kazan as a young widow who works in Henry's pharmacy, and Peter Mullan as a teacher with whom a less uptight and proper woman than Olive would have had a passionate fling. Devin Druid and John Gallagher, Jr. are also affecting as Olive's teen-aged and adult son.
The overarching darkness shadowing Olive's life and the flashes of her inherent kindness, are beautifully established in a poignant scene between her and a similarly haunted former student (Cory Michael Smith). There are other often humorous glimpses throughout of the Olive beneath the sourpuss who greets any complaints from others with an impatient "Oh, for God's sake." She's most touching as her 30 year marriage ends with Henry's slow death from a stroke and as a tragic ending turns bittersweet courtesy of a delightful cameo from Bill Murray. Thanks to terrific make-up and camera work, McDormand, is a most convincing 74-year-old even though she's only 57.
As Olive Kitteridge is set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine, so Elizabeth Strout's first and most recent books, Amy & Isabelle and The Burgess Boys, are set in another fictional Maine town: Shirley Falls, Maine. Olive Kitteredge, evoked memories of Sherwood Anderson's long-ago ground breaking Winesburg, Ohio but also the theater world's much lauded Annie Baker. Strout, like Baker, keeps returning to the small town New England of her youth. Interestingly, Baker's favorite town is Shirley, Vermont.
Olive Kitteredge puts the kibosh on talk about stage actors wasting their talents on TV series. Good acting and good stories are powerful no matter where seen.
Jersey Boys the Movie by Elyse Sommer
Clint Eastwood adaptation of the super successful juke box musical Jersey Boys has been eagerly awaited, and has now opened to mixed reviews. While it's likely to do okay at movie theaters, it's also likely to have a very positive ripple effect at the August Wilson Theater box office where the show is in its tenth year . To bear me out on this, I met some neighbors in the elevator the other night who saw the movie recently and all said that they now really wanted to see the live show or what one fellow referred to as "the real thing."
Since the film is written by its original original book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice team, the Eastwood film certainly can't be faulted for ignoring the source show. If I had to sum up its pluses and minuses side in a single sentence: Less Broadway pizazz offset by greater emotional depth.
Ultimately, the movie proves that this genre of musical's long life and adaptability from stage to screen or screen to stage is as dependent on a good book as a hot catalogue. Perhaps Holler If Ya Hear me , the latest variation of the jukebox genre to arrive on Broadway would have been better served by being true to Tupac Shakur's story than trying to fictionalize it to give it more universal audience appeal
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