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Into the Woods: Broadly Misconceived, Still Potent

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Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is an intimate show with profound ideas (and unflagging black humor). Characters must be our focus. The more complicated the production, the more these ideas dissipate. The current Shakespeare in the Park interpretation unfortunately suffers from an excess of busyness.

John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s fantastical tree house is quite wonderful. Evocatively lit by Ben Stanton, ladders and stairs connect platforms large and small, supported by whole trees and trunks surrounded by leafy branches. When scenes are played in portions of it, the ingenious set works beautifully. Too often, however, a cast filling every level with synchronized movement deflect attention from soloists on terra firma.

Donna Murphy is glorious as the Witch, every word malignantly slicing through the air, every note clarion. Taking full advantage of an awkward but effective costume seemingly made from bark and vines, mud and moss, Murphy moves like all our youthful nightmares. When the Witch appeals to her own child, the actress manages to elicit empathy. And when at last furious and spent, she delivers prophetic foreboding, we shiver.

Instead of the masterful, world weary Tom Aldridge who, as narrator, disappeared into the background bridging events, we now have a contemporary child (a stagey Jack Broderick) who’s run away from home. Echoing voices of parental admonition and argument accompany his entrance. Unquestionably the worst conceit of the production, the orange-jacketed eyesore distracts at every turn. As if his blatant presence were not enough to prevent us from being present in the fairytale, Director Timothy Sheader insists he participate with small gestures at every turn, manipulates a number of dolls pulled from his knapsack as if voodoo totems-imagine a white-haired gnome standing in for Rapunzel—and is almost fed to the Giantess in place of Jack. Suddenly the characters see him? “There must always be someone outside,” he warns. Not in the original.

Sheader who directed the Regent’s Park Open Air Theater London Production two years ago, seems like an artist who, having had unexpected success with an Indie, determines to dazzle when offered large scale resources, losing sight of the story.

The splendid Amy Adams (Baker’s Wife) is barely recognizable under a frowsy bloomer girl wig almost the size of her head. That lovely voice (enunciating every acrobatic syllable) coupled with acting sincerity manifests a flesh and blood woman. Stubbornness is palpable. Adams’ surprised, delighted, and confused encounter with the randy Prince is multidimensional even from a distance.

Costumes by Emily Rebholz are so all over the map one doesn’t know where to look. Individually clever, they’re dissonant on the same stage. The Baker (Denis O’Hare) and his wife appear to be peasants from an eastern block children’s book illustration. Cinderella’s evil Stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and Sisters (Bethany Moore and Jennifer Rias) and the Wolf (Ivan Hernandez) are dressed as hard rockers. The Princes (Cooper Grodin and Ivan Hernandez) look like versions of Liberace in white and gold brocade.

Outfitted like a roller derby skater, Sarah Stiles puts her own original stamp on Little Red Riding Hood. The actress’s wry expressions and feisty sarcasm are welcome, despite being a bit modern. Girls after all, will be girls. Stiles has terrific comic timing and the physical aptitude of a clown.

Let’s talk about inserting modernity. The Baker and his Wife at one point wave signs reading “Cinders and Prinz Forever” and “Sole Mates.” Little Red Riding Hood uses a flash camera. Jack’s mother (Kristine Zbornik) totters around with a martini glass when their financial status improves. Wearing a classic mink, she looks and sounds like a Jewish mother parody out of Woody Allen. Ouch.

Gideon Glick (Jack) evidences just the right thick-headed, wide-eyed sweetness and has an appealing tenor voice. Denis O’Hare’s Baker is a deadpan Jules Feiffer cartoon eliciting too little sympathy. Casting Chip Zien, who played the original baker, as Mysterious Man works well, both because of sentimental recognition (the audience applauds upon entrance) and because Zien continues to come through with an engaging performance. We could do without his apparently itinerant character swilling beer, however.

Though Rachael Canning’s large, rather organic cow puppet is charming, the Hen and Giantess (Canning’s?) made from machine parts and garden tools look like a poor Disney attempt at winning over the kids by conceiving creatures they might’ve jerry-rigged. Broadway’s 1987 Giantess was emphatically more powerful unseen. Acme Sound Partners skillfully supplies resonant footsteps and cracking branches as she approaches. They also notably engineer perfectly balanced, crystal clear music and vocals.

Winning staging includes a free floating bed in Granny’s cottage, the Witch’s climb up Rapunzel’s hair (possibly the ugliest wig I’ve ever seen onstage), and successively opening green umbrellas to show beanstalk growth.

It’s doubtful this ambitious piece of theater would be written today. Body count alone would prevent capitalization; its intellect would make backers blanch despite the humor. Buoyed by extravagantly resonant melodies, Into the Woods is ultimately extremely moving.

Bernadette Peters, the original Witch, sat several rows in front of me. I imagine she felt grateful to have created the role in a version that respected its characters and told the tale with clarity.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus
1. Cast of Into the Woods
2. Donna Murphy, the Witch
3. Sarah Stiles, Ivan Hernandez
4. Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare,Gideon Glick

Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Co-Directed by Liam Steel
Shakespeare in the Park
The Delacorte Theater
Through August 25, 2012

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