Friday, August 10, 2012

Theater Review: Into the Woods

Donna Murphy and Tess Soltau. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus. 
A Perfect Setting with Unclear Paths Into the Woods
By Lauren Yarger
Setting Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods Central Park's Delacorte Theater as part of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park offerings with stars like Donna Murphy, Glenn Close and Amy Adams would seem the stuff of fairytales.

The set is magical -- a three-story tree-house sort of forested stage (John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour, design) fabulously lighted (Ben Stanton, design) to showcase the not so distant trees and woods of Central Park providing an enchanted backdrop, but the vision for the production by Director Timothy Sheader and Co-Director Liam Steel, who collaborated on an Olivier-winning version of the show in London's West End, makes it difficult to see the forest through the trees.

In trying so hard to clear a different path through the woods, the creative team loses its way. Here, for instance, the role of the narrator, usually performed by a man who doubles as the Mysterious Man (Chip Zien), is played instead by a young boy (Jack Broderick). At first glance, it seems a good idea since the story revolves around a bunch of fairytale characters. But Sondheim doesn't just embellish the tales of Cinderella (Jessie Mueller) and her evil Stepmother and Stepsisters (Ellen Harvey, Bethany Moore and Jenifer Rias), Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Stiles) and the Wolf (Ivan Hernandez), Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) the Witch (Murphy), the Baker and His Wife (Dennis O'Hare and Adams) or Jack (Gideon Glick) and his mother ( Kristine Zbornik) of Beanstalk fame. He mutates them into commentary on society, on the giants we face in everyday life and on motivations and self preservation. Such heavy themes need the anchor of the adult voice in the narrator, not the "Let's-read-a-fairytale" voice of a kid (especially when the others gang up on him in murderous fashion when they aren't happy with the way he's telling the story).

Another change in this production, that can only be classified under the "what-were-they-thinking?" category are the costumes designed by Emily Rebholz. A few of the characters look like what we expect: Cinderella in a lovely white ball gown, the Baker's wife in a dress and apron, but some others boggle the mind. Red Riding Hood shows up in a red denim jacket, helmet and knee pads looking like she's going for a skate through the hood. The Wolf, even more unattractively, looks like Fabio in a fur-skin coat (and there is some sexual innuendo between the two);  Cinderella's Stepmother sports a Grace Jones hair do and wears leather.

The most disturbing is the witch. She looks like something evil the earth has puked up, which is fine as far as evil witches go, but it's those odd appendages that don't make sense. She has two mossy, vine covered extensions to her root-like finger nails that look like they would be a creative way to incorporate crutches into the costume for a performer with a broken leg, but which seem to serve no purpose except to distract us here.

Even Milky White, Jack's beloved cow which he trades for magic beans, is odd: a creepy two-piece puppet with a head detached from its skeletal-looking body. And Jack comes off here as mentally challenged, rather than as innocent and trusting.

Losing the costumes and the characters we know from the fairytales takes away from some of the original sarcasm intended in Sondheim's book and lyrics, it seems. Putting characters so far away from the audience in the upper levels of that treehouse  setting removes us from the production as well. (Rapunzel's tower at the very top was blocked from my sight line by an audio speaker).

The first act seems interminable at one and a half hours (and the three-hour-15-minute total run time did not provide a happily-ever-after for my back. Those wooden seats at the Delacourte are hard. Bring a cushion). A number of performers flatting out (which admittedly isn't hard to do while singing Sondheim's score) didn't help. Paul Gemignani music directs. The 11-piece orchestra appears to be hidden behind the second level of the tree house.

OK, so what is right with this production? I enjoyed Murphy's performance very much.  She  lands solid vocals (she is always a pleasure to listen to) and adds nice layers to the witchy character. Stiles is very entertaining as the snarky Red Riding Hood with a tittering laugh. And Glenn Close as the voice of the Giant was probably the best and scariest I have ever heard. Then there are the wonderful songs including "Into the Woods," "Agony," "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen."

For those interested in a  more family-friendly version, just the first act (before things go downhill toward the less-than-happy ending) will be presented at a matinee Wednesday, Aug. 22. Click here for information about that performance.

Into the Woods has been extended to Sept. 1 at the Delacorte Theater (entering at 81st Street and Central Park West.) For tickets and performance information, visit

Christians might also like to know:
-- No content notes beyond what's already mentioned, but this is definitely for older kids -- at least 12, I would suggest -- despite the fairytale theme.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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