Into the Woods
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
August 7, 2012
Watching the Public Theater's revival of Into the Woods at the Delacorte the other night, one fearful thought kept coming back to me: I hope to God they don't try to transfer this to Broadway. Or anywhere indoors for that matter. There's always that temptation with a show that works as well as this one does. But if that impulse comes up, I'm begging the producers to resist. Unlike Shakespeare's plays, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical of fairy tales gone bad may not have been written to be performed outdoors. But like the best of Shakespeare's plays, it most certainly belongs there.
While some might hem and haw at the Public's decision to produce modern musicals in the House that Papp Built—which they've been doing for a while now—this production stands as one of the strongest reasons for ignoring those naysayers. It's the first musical I've seen there since the 1997 revival of On the Town (sadly, I missed Hair a few years ago). As with any show at the Delacorte, Central Park inevitably looms as an additional character. But set designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour are able to accomplish something with Into the Woods that I haven't seen done there before—to subsume the massive personality of the park and transform it into something wholly different, something we perhaps often wish it were but know it can never really be: completely natural. With the theater's distinctive backdrop of Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle hidden behind a wall of trees, the deliberately designed Central Park becomes wild, untamable woods. And as surely as the musical's characters are trapped, we are happily trapped along with them.
Into the Woods, for those unfamiliar with it, is basically every popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale character thrown together into one kingdom. Sondheim himself explains it perfectly in his memoir Look, I Made a Hat, excerpted in the program:
…the first act would deal with the traditional telling of the tales up to the Happily and the second with the Ever After. The first would be farce, the second melodrama…
And, here, both the farce and melodrama are pointed up in a highly muscular production. There's much running up and down a central staircase and violence, when it appears, is palpable. This is not fireside, bedtime fairy-tale telling; this is fairy-tale telling with a mission.
Lying at the heart of Lapine's beautiful book and linking together familiar characters like Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, the Evil Witch, Jack [of Beanstalk fame], and others, is the tale of the Baker and his Wife. As played by Denis O'Hare, the Baker is a somewhat feckless anti-hero who, in an effort to break the Witch's spell of childlessness over him and his wife, sets out to gather four items for her. This quest, the seemingly small moral compromises the Baker and everyone else make to get what they want, and the consequences when they finally do get them, make up the bulk of the plot.
While the book and score remain unchanged from the original 1987 production, there is one new element. Director Timothy Sheader and co-director Liam Steel have devised a way to frame the story that seems, at the opening, somewhat cloying and gimmicky, but which pays off in a surprisingly moving way in the end. I won't get too specific except to say that, clunky as it is at times, the device adds texture and resonance to a show that may not have needed but nevertheless benefits from it.
The performances are well worth waiting in the dreaded free-ticket line to see. Amy Adams gives a lovely charm and grounded earthiness to the Baker's Wife. She's wonderfully reluctant in her spurring on of O'Hare's indecisive and fearful Baker into action. It's (somewhat literally) like watching a poor man's Lady Macbeth, who somehow gets you to root for her. Jessie Mueller is heartbreaking as the constantly maligned Cinderella (although why do people still insist on using glasses as an indicator of homeliness or plainness on a woman?) and Donna Murphy takes no prisoners as the Witch, especially in her gritty rendition of the show's eleven o'clock number, Last Midnight. One fun little insider treat is watching Chip Zien, the original production's Baker, playing the Mysterious Man opposite O'Hare. If you don't already know why, I think you'll catch on pretty quickly. It's just one more little bit of texture that makes this production something special. Oh, and the puppetry (designed by Rachael Canning) is magnificent.
As with any good fairy tale, there's a kind of magic about the way the Public's Into the Woods sneaks up on you. It sort of enfolds you at first, lulling you into a false sense of security just before dealing a devastating emotional blow. If you're worried about waiting in that line and being disappointed, don't be. You won't. Go wait in the park, in the wild woods. Like the show says, anything can happen there. A theater on a pond can even become a forest. And you'll swear you can see a beanstalk growing up to the sky above you.