Into the Woods
Also see Sharon's review of The Common Man
Once upon a time, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote a musical called Into the Woods, about what happened after "happily ever after." What does Cinderella do when she realizes she's married a man she has only met three times? What happens to Jack when the giant's wife finds out what he did to the giant? Did Little Red Riding Hood change after her horrific experience inside a wolf's stomach? Fairy tales have always had a dark side; Sondheim and Lapine sought to explore it. Their musical had a charming first act, which interwove several fairy tales into a single seamless web, and a darker second act, in which everything unravelled. It ran for nearly two years on Broadway.
Now, fifteen years later, Sondheim and Lapine have polished up the goodies in their basket, and are preparing to journey into the woods of Broadway again, ready to see if their welcoming party will turn out to be wolves. As a general rule, three reasons come to mind for attempting a full-scale revival of a musical: to reconceive it into something new; to share it with the world again with an extraordinary cast; or to bring it to life for a new generation of theatregoers. The Broadway-bound revival of Into the Woods only completely succeeds on the third ground.
Those who have seen the original Into the Woods will surely be able to identify countless differences between this production and the original, ranging from altered lines to a new song. The addition of a second wolf makes the parallel between the base, instinct-driven wolves and the refined princes (played by the same actors) that much clearer. The use of an actor in a cow suit where once only a prop had been enlivens every scene in which the cow appears. (Indeed, director Lapine might consider toning down the cow's hijinks; Milky-White upstages everyone just by standing there and blinking her sad, perceptive cow eyes.) Douglas Schmidt's set is glorious; the characters all live in their own lifesize storybooks, and the woods that they enter are overflowing with bright green leaves in the first act and frightening gnarled tree trunks in the second. But when all is said and done, this is not a new production of Into the Woods with a new perspective on the material. It is simply a tighter, funnier, lovelier production of the original.
The fairy tale characters that sprightly skip their way off into the woods of the unknown are played by a surprisingly uneven cast. Laura Benanti is one of the best; her Cinderella balances her beautiful singing voice with a likeable down-to-earth attitude. Christopher Sieber gives a wonderful comic turn as Rapunzel's Prince, earning laughs by bringing a fresh delivery to lyrics we thought we already knew. At the other end of the scale is Marylouise Burke, who seems totally at sea as the mother of beanstalk-growing Jack. Even after the show had officially opened, she was missing lines and steps. Molly Ephraim's Little Red Ridinghood convincingly evolves from adorable sticky-fingered child into a knife-wielding Wednesday Addams, but her singing is frequently off-pitch. The bulk of the cast, including Vanessa Williams's above-the-title turn as the Witch, is simply adequate. They all deliver the material cleanly, but they rarely bring anything new and exciting to the characters.
The production itself still has to work out some technical kinks. On the night reviewed, microphones weren't being switched on fast enough, and a character's transformation was telegraphed by the obvious use of a double. The pace of the show could also be improved; several songs have overly long dramatic pauses right before their last lines. Ahmanson audiences appear to be stuck with these flaws, but hopefully they will be addressed before the show opens on Broadway.
Still, without a new perspective on the show, and without an exemplary cast, what we're looking at is a good solid production of Into the Woods, headed back to Broadway a mere fifteen years after its original debut. Will it run? Many who saw the original will not find this revival exceptional enough to deserve a repeat viewing, but those who missed it the first time around will appreciate the opportunity to see a good production of Sondheim's most accessible musical. Whether the Broadway audience has added enough new interested theatregoers in the last fifteen years is something only time will tell.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Dodger Theatricals Stage Holding and TheatreDreams present Into the Woods. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine. Scenic Design Douglas Schmidt; Costume Design Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design Dan Moses Schreier; Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick; Special Effects Gregory Meeh; Projection Design Elaine J. McCarthy; Illusion Design Jim Steinmeyer; Production Supervisor Beverley Randolph; Technical Supervision Tech Production Services; Marketing Margery Singer; Press Representative Boneau/Bryan-Brown; Executive Producer Dodger Management Group; Casting Jim Carnahan, C.S.A.; Associate Producer Lauren Mitchell; Musical Direction Paul Gemignani; Choreography by John Carrafa; Directed by James Lapine.
Into the Woods runs through March 24, 2002 at the Ahmanson Tehatre. For tickets, see www.taperahmanson.com