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A CurtainUp Review
Into the Woods

How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?

— Witch
Once upon a time, but not too long ago, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim changed forever the course and the expectations of the American musical theater with shows such as Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion and Into the Woods. Each has been revived with comparative regularity and with varying degrees of success. The Public Theater's magical 25th anniversary revival of Into the Woods is, to use the appropriate vernacular, more enchanting than the 2002 Broadway revival.

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.

Into the Woods
Donna Murphy
(Photo: Joan Marcus
This production brings all of the above into dazzling relief from the minute our eyes see the basic set — an awesome, three-tiered structure that appears to have been constructed with the trunks of slim trees and topped with a huge birds nest-like wreath of twigs tucked into the foliage that is Rapunzel’s tower. Perhaps even more whimsical is the beanstalk made of green umbrellas that grows and grows.

Into the Woods
Donna Murphy
(Photo: Joan Marcus
No less dazzling is the performance of Donna Murphy. She looks perhaps less like your every day witch than a grotesque creature dredged out of a muck-filled swamp, her extended claw-like fingers attached to long stumps that serve as crutches and hair that seems to suggest a tangle of rotten river reeds. But just wait until this “thing” with a killer voice makes her glorious transformation before our eyes, emerging in a stunning grassy-green gown and tossing about her gorgeous long red hair with self-admiring abandon. The witch, who is inclined to lecture her insecure forest-foraging disciples on what she perceives as the path to maturity, is yet another role which Murphy instills with her own uniquely comedic and sublime musical gifts.

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.”

Into The Woods
Book by James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Co-Directed by Liam Steel
Amy Adams (Baker's Wife), Jack Broderick (Narrator), Glenn Close (The Voice Of The Giant), Victoria Cook (Harp/Gretel/Snow White), Gideon Click (Jack), Cooper Grodin (Rapunzel's Prince), Ellen Harvey (Cinderella's Stepmother), Ivan Hernandez (Cinderella's Prince/Wolf), Tina Johnson (Little Red Ridinghood's Granny), Josh Lamon (Steward), Bethany Moore (Florinda), Jessie Mueller (Cinderella), Donna Murphy (Witch), Johnny Newcomb (Woodsman), Denis O'hare (Baker), Jennifer Rias (Lucinda), Laura Shoop (Cinderella's Mother), Tess Soltau (Rapunzel/Sleeping Beauty), Sarah Stiles (Little Red Ridinghood), Eric R. Williams (Hansel), Kristine Zbornik (Jack's Mother), Chip Zien (Mysterious Man)
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Puppetry: Rachael Canning
Running time: 3 hours including intermission
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park (entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.)
Tickets are free and distributed daily beginning at 1 PM.
Performances every night at 8 PM
Reserved Summer Supporter tickets ($175 donation) are available on the Public Theater website, by calling (212) 967- 7555, and at the box office at 425 Lafayette
From 07/23/12 Opened 08/09/12 Ends 09/01/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/07/12
Musical Numbers To check what's different from the last Broadway revival go here
Act One
  • Prologue: "Into the Woods" /Company
  • "Cinderella at the Grave" /Cinderella, Cinderella's Mother
  • "Hello, Little Girl" /Wolf, Little Red Ridinghood
  • "I Guess This Is Goodbye" /Jack
  • "Maybe They're Magic" /Baker's Wife, Baker
  • "Our Little World" /Witch, Rapunzel
  • "I Know Things Now" /Little Red Ridinghood
  • "A Very Nice Prince" /Cinderella, Baker's Wife
  • "First Midnight" /Company
  • "Giants in the Sky" /Jack
  • "Agony" /Cinderella's Prince, Rapunzel's Prince
  • "It Takes Two" /Baker, Baker's Wife
  • "Second Midnight" /Company
  • "Stay With Me" /Witch
  • "On the Steps of the Palace" /Cinderella
  • "Ever After" /Narrator, Company
Act Two
  • Prologue: "So Happy" /Company
  • "Agony" (reprise) /Cinderella's Prince, Rapunzel's Prince
  • "Witch's 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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