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Where better to present the musical Into the Woods than, well, in the woods?
The bucolic setting of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater adds immeasurably to the impact of the Shakespeare in the Park’s revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 fairy tale-inspired musical. Adapted from an acclaimed production seen at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre two summers ago, this version doesn’t entirely smooth out the rough edges of this darkly beguiling work. But its numerous imaginative touches, as well as a first-rate cast headed by Amy Adams (in her New York stage debut), Donna Murphy and Denis O’Hare (True Blood) provide ample compensations. Thanks to Sondheim’s enduring appeal, not to mention the free tickets, the show has become one of the hottest tickets in town for its limited run. A hoped-for commercial Broadway transfer seems a definite possibility.
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As is often the case with Sondheim revivals, numerous changes have been incorporated into this version, including the addition and deletion of several songs. The chief directorial conceit, and it’s an effective one, is having the Narrator played by a young boy (Noah Radcliffe) who imagines the dark goings-on of the Grimm fairy tales after being separated from his father during a camping trip.
As always, Lapine’s mash-up of the classic tales featuring such familiar characters as Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf remains a rather jumbled affair. Those not familiar with the show may find the goings-on rather confusing, especially as staged by Timothy Sheader, with Liam Steel billed as co-director. The action is at times maddeningly indistinct, with several key moments — the death of Rapunzel, for instance — barely registering. Adding to the problem is the vast expanse of the Delacorte stage and the sheer distance between the performers and the audience.
It certainly looks impressive, thanks to the verdant outdoor setting and John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s giant, jungle-gym style set made up of wooden platforms, ladders and ramps framed by towering trees and topped by a bird’s nest-like chamber from which Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) is in a perfect position to let down her famous hair.
Less fortuitous are the frequently outlandish, ungainly costumes. Murphy’s Witch has been made to like a Yeti, at least before her transformation back into womanhood, and poor Adams is saddled with an enormous wig resembling an overfed squirrel.
The staging employs numerous creative touches, such as the suddenly improvised bed in which the Wolf waits for his intended victim that is composed of sheets and pillows suddenly held up by the actors, and the ingenious large-scale puppetry that transforms a tree into the revengeful Giant (amusingly voiced by Glenn Close).
The directors have also ramped up the sexuality of the piece, with the fateful encounter between the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood proving a little more provocative than parents of young children may feel comfortable with. Some of the other gags, such as the Mysterious Man’s (Chip Zien) habit of loudly opening a can of beer at key moments, are simply sophomoric.
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The pacing seems off as well, with the three-hour running time resulting in numerous draggy interludes.
O’Hare and Adams excel as the invented characters of The Baker and his Wife. Adams, who seems to have no end to her range, is beautifully touching in her character’s despair, and reveals impressive pipes on such numbers as “Moments in the Woods” and “It Takes Two.” While O’Hare is no match for her vocally, he delivers a typically intense, fascinating turn that is particularly powerful in the show’s much darker second act, and he mines Sondheim’s complex lyrics for all they’re worth.
The ever-reliable Murphy delivers a bravura turn as the Witch, displaying a fierce malevolence that makes the character truly scary. Other standouts include Jessie Mueller’s charming, beautifully sung Cinderella; Gideon Glick’s endearing Jack; Sarah Stiles’ spunky Little Red Riding Hood; and Ivan Hernandez’s devilishly sexy Wolf. (The latter is less effective as Cinderella’s Prince, who, along with Paris Remillard as Rapunzel’s Prince, is depicted as a silly fop).
Longtime Into the Woods fans will be delighted by the appearance of Zien, who played the Baker in the original Broadway production and who here amusingly essays the Mysterious Man.
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And then, of course, there is that glorious Sondheim score, featuring such haunting numbers as “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.” Beautifully rendered in Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and a first-rate sound system, it easily makes up for the problematic book that no production ever quite seems to successfully tackle.
Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York (runs through Sept. 1)
Cast: Amy Adams, Jack Noah Radcliffe, Glenn Close, Gideon Glick, Ellen Harvey, Ivan Hernandez, Tina Johnson, Josh Lamon, Bethany Moore, Jessie Mueller, Donna Murphy, Denis O’Hare, Paris Remillard, Jennifer Rias, Laura Shoop, Tess Soltau, Sarah Stiles, Kristine Zbornik, Chip Zien
Book by James Lapine
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Director: Timothy Sheader
Co-director: Liam Steel
Set designers: John Lee Beatty, Soutra Gilmour
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Presented by The Public Theater
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