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Into the Woods

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Into the Woods
Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams
Photo by Joan Marcus

I'd love to say it lost me at the cunnilingus. But The Public Theater's revival of Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park implodes long before the halfway point of the first act when the Wolf, um, eats Little Red Ridinghood. The vulgarity, the vacuity, the ugliness, and the desperation are all on display from the opening moments of this bleary nightmare, which has been directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel to achieve the heretofore impossible feat of making everything about James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's usually likable 1987 musical seem ghastly.

Leaving aside the disgusting spectacle of a lupine aggressor tonguing an adolescent girl below the waist, the "movement" (by Steel) makes dancing cast members look like malfunctioning 1970s disco robots; the unit sticks-and-glue set (by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour) looks like a herd of elephants vomited on the Swiss Family Robinson shelter; the modern-dress costume plot from Emily Rebholz resembles, at its best, the water-damaged remnants of a 99-cent store fire sale, and is topped off by more fright wigs and makeup than even the Young Frankenstein musical dared; the orchestra, playing Jonathan Tunick's own reduced orchestrations under Sondheim stalwart Paul Gemignani's baton, sounds worse than any other I have encountered in a major New York venue; and the cast, despite being full of enormous talents like Donna Murphy, Amy Adams, Denis O'Hare, and Chip Zien, is almost to-a-person awful.

Whether the directors' Regent's Park Open Air Theatre London production, on which this one is based (but with a new creative team), was this misguided, I have no idea. But what's playing at the Delacorte through September 1 is bereft of charm, cleverness, and intelligence, and is only made worse by a new "concept" that renders every millisecond of the show complete nonsense. There's less interest in presenting a gang of fairy-tale characters who get mixed up with each other before falling headfirst into unexpected real-world troubles than in putting forth a stylistic deconstruction of some alternate-reality interpretation of the story. That ensures that a musical that's always been about discovering that "happily ever after" is rarely so happy is no longer about anything at all.

The notion is that the entire thing unfolds inside the mind of a young boy (Jack Broderick and Noah Radcliffe alternate in the role), who runs away into a forest to escape his abusive home life. As he tries to sleep, tormented by memories of his family's enraged bickerings, he escapes into a fantasy world to maintain his sanity — a world in which, uh, everyone is unhappy, and speaks endlessly of things no 10-year-old boy is naturally expert in, from obscure garden greens to child-rearing to revenge psychology to adult male and female relationship anxiety between separately longing singles and dissatisfied marrieds alike.

Into the Woods
Into the Woods company
Photo by Joan Marcus

If you know Into the Woods, you know that Cinderella (here played by Jessie Mueller), Jack of beanstalk fame (Gideon Glick), Little Red (Sarah Stiles), and the Baker and his wife (O'Hare and Adams) are contemporary spins on classic archetypes, and that Lapine's dialogue and Sondheim's score are intentionally articulate, literate, and complex beyond what ends up in children's books. A young boy never could envision a story in which these people speak this way. That makes Act I unbearable, but Act II is utterly incomprehensible. When performed as intended, the impact of the narrator paying a steep price for interfering in these characters' rapidly disintegrating lives is haunting and meaningful; here it fizzes like a wet firecracker, not just because it makes the act's perpetrators look cruel rather than capricious, but also because the boy is always clearly visible at the edge of the stage, and thus obviously not taking part in the action that supposed affects the rest of his life.

Moments like that leave you wondering whether Sheader and Steel even read the script. And there are countless others as well. It's crucial to the plot that a cow be white, so why does the ramshackle War Horse–style puppet used here have a brown body? If the giant that terrorizes the newly independent villagers is supposed to be threatening, why is it the spitting image of Dame Edna? Why is it supposed to be funny when the Mysterious Man (Zien, the original Baker) opens a can of beer every time he talks? Why does the random placement of performers and Ben Stanton's lighting plot prevent you from figuring out who is speaking or singing at any given point? Why does this relatively lean show run over three hours in this incarnation? Why do some of Sondheim's most accessible-ever songs sound uniformly lifeless, kindling neither emotional engagement nor, in the case the duet for the commiserating prince brothers (Ivan Hernandez, who's also the Wolf, and Paris Remillard, spelling Cooper Grodin at the performance I attended), "Agony," laughs for the first time ever?

Most important: Why are the actors so terrible? Adams, who revealed plenty of cartoon-come-alive charm in the Disney film Enchanted, should be a perfect Baker's Wife, but here she's crazed and ungainly, bearing a strident belt and wearing a wig that makes her look like Edna Garrett from The Facts of Life. Mueller, who made a smash Broadway debut last year in the misbegotten revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, is bewildering as a Cinderella who looks like she longs not to wed a royal but to work in a library. The gangly Glick has made Jack grating and gay, and is not aided by Kristine Zbornik's Brooklyn-drenched, detail-and-delight-free performance as his mother; Stiles, whose Little Red is practically developmentally disabled, is no better. Donna Murphy, typically a reliable Sondheim interpreter, mushes her way through every song and sings astonishingly off-key, and convinces as neither the aged witch (in a costume resembling a diseased walking tree trunk) nor the youthful beauty who discovers wishes never come without strings.

Of the others, only O'Hare deserves special mention. Though he's playing exactly the same whiny accountant type he does in nearly every onstage venture, his work is honest—something no one else onstage manages. O'Hare's playfully nerdy mien, always thinly stretched over a ball of intense hurt, has nothing to do with the Baker who'll unwittingly sacrifice everything for the family he thinks he wants, but brings some dim illumination to an evening that otherwise has no use for it.

He succeeds to the extent he does because he's playing an actual human being. Alas, he's alone amid a garbled grotesquerie, trying to craft something of flesh and blood when everyone around him is thrilled to be plastic. That may be sufficient for Sheader, Steel, and The Public, but it should not be good enough for anyone else, particularly musical lovers who deserve to see a modern classic treated with more respect than this Into the Woods bothers to. Little Red, at the mouth of the Wolf, derives more pleasure from this fiasco than they will.


Into the Woods
Through September 1
Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Central Park entrances closest to the theater are at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park are distributed via the free lines at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and on the web via the Virtual Ticketing system.