|Donna Murphy and Tess Soltau. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.|
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 http://www.shakespeareinthepark.org/.
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-- 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.