Thursday, August 9, 2012

Satisfaction in the Park with Sondheim

Review:  Into the Woods
Donna Murphy in a performance that would surely be Tony-nominated if it were eligible (here's hoping for a transfer!)

After a troubled preview period riddled with rain delays, cancelled rehearsals, and at least one Twitter scandal, the star-studded Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods has finally opened at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, and the results are worth the wait.  While not perfect, this reimagining of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical avoids the long shadow cast by the beloved Broadway original and establishes the work as a modern classic capable of withstanding wildly different interpretations without losing its sizeable charm.
For those unfamiliar with the show’s premise, Into the Woods tells the story of a childless Baker (Tony-winner Dennis O’Hare) and his Wife (Oscar-nominee Amy Adams) who are tasked with gathering four mystical items by the mysterious and semi-malevolent Witch (Tony-winner Donna Murphy).  If they can find the items in three midnights’ time, the Witch will lift the curse she has placed upon them and grant them a child.  Along the way, the Baker and his Wife cross paths with famous fairy tale figures like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (and his beanstalk) and Rapunzel.  And while all of the characters eventually get what they wish, the actions taken during their journeys come with unforeseen consequences that raise the question of what happens after Happily Ever After.
Based on a 2010 production at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, this Into the Woods is a wholly contemporary take on what has previously been treated as a timeless tale.  Director Timothy Sheader, repeating his work from the London production, has added a framing device in which a runaway child (played by an accomplished Jack Broderick) assumes the role of the story’s Narrator and enacts the Baker’s story.  Having a child in such a pivotal role highlights the underlying themes of what parents teach their children and the loss of innocence, while also justifying the very contemporary mannerisms of the key players.  Emily Robholz’s costumes emphasize the updated setting with an appealing hodgepodge of modern dress and timeless clothing.
Sheader takes his concept and runs with it, letting it and the outdoor setting influence every aspect about the production.  Seamlessly blending in with the Central Park setting, John Lee Beatty’s multi-tiered set provides an excellent canvas for Sheader to work with, and the director deploys his actors onto the various crosswalks and ladders with assurance and style.  He also eschews modern stage trickery for something more simplistic and ultimately more satisfying, with his representations of Jack’s beanstalk and Giant proving particularly striking (both drew audible gasps at the performance I attended).
The cast is such an embarrassment of riches it’s difficult to know where to start, but Donna Murphy is particularly impressive as the Witch.  Filling the vast Delacorte Theatre with the presence of a true star, Murphy is transcendent in the role, from her mesmerizing first entrance until the final curtain.  Her initial wow factor is due in no small part to the ingenious make-up design of Joe Dulude II, which transforms her into a gnarled old crone on the verge of becoming one with the forest that surrounds her, but Murphy is too good an actress to let the costume do all the work.  She contrasts her frightening appearing with a deft comic delivery that mines the humor in Lapine’s book while remaining an imposing antagonist, and even after her transformation into a more conventional form Murphy remains transfixing.  And when she sings the haunting “Last Midnight,” Murphy propels the song to the showstopping heights it has always aspired to but never quite achieved.
Few could hope to equal Murphy’s brilliance, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the cast is anything less than incredibly compelling in its own right.  Amy Adams’ inherent charm serves her quite well as the put-upon Baker’s Wife, and although it takes her a while to find the show’s rhythm she becomes quite compelling by the end.   She certainly earns her right to perform alongside such accomplished theatre stars, and her singing voice is quite strong for someone with little formal training. 
Unfortunately for Adams, her main scene partner is the woefully miscast Dennis O’Hare, who proves to be the one weak link among an otherwise fine cast.  O’Hare, so adept at playing insane and/or eccentric characters, struggles in the everyman role of the Baker, often coming across as harshly sarcastic or obnoxiously neurotic.  He and Adams lack the chemistry needed for the audience to fully invest in their characters, and it is telling that O’Hare’s strongest moments occur when Adams is offstage.  The fact that the original Baker, Chip Zein, plays the Mysterious Man and often appears onstage with O’Hare serves as an unintentional reminder of the latter’s shortcomings, and you can’t help but feel the pair would be better served by switching roles.
Recent Tony-nominee Jessie Mueller does a fantastic job as Cinderella, convincingly conveying a mix of school-girl giddiness and underlying sadness that makes her the most grounded of all the major players.  Gideon Glick fully commits to the enthusiastic but dim-witted nature of Jack in an endearing portrayal that is central to the show’s underlying theme of children growing older.  As his female counterpoint, Sarah Stiles’ Little Red Riding Hood is hilariously daffy, but avoids the role’s tendency towards obnoxiousness by offering glimpses of the scared and confused young woman beneath the cloak.
The production’s few missteps occur when the director and cast favor the overt rather than the subtle.  Cinderella’s two Stepsisters are so over-choreographed that it becomes distracting, especially given their tangential importance to the plot and the lack of any real dance among the other characters.  Sheader and his cast play up the sexual undertones in the Little Red Riding Hood story to the point where they feel imposed on the tale rather than an essential part of its meaning, which undermines the work’s brilliantly subtle subversion of fairy tale tropes in the first act.  And the show runs into tonal problems at the start of its second half, when things awkwardly shift from straightforward musical comedy into more serio-comedic drama (to be fair, this is also the one area where James Lapine’s book could use some tweaking).
Overall, the only people who won’t find anything to enjoy about this Into the Woods are the purists who insist that all mountings of the show be perfect duplicates of the original production.  For everyone else, this version offers a fascinatingly new take on the material that stays true to its intention, complete with a top-tier cast and a towering central performance by the incomparable Donna Murphy.  Into the Woods is some of the best theatre of the summer, and that fact that it remains free to anyone willing to brave the long lines is added icing on the cake.  Go see it before it’s gone.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad that you enjoyed it! I was anxious to read your review! I'm hoping that I can see it now that the run has been extended!