Into The Woods Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by James Lapine. Choreography by John Carrafa. Musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Special effects by Gregory Meech. Projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy. Illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer. Cast: Vanessa Williams, John McMartin, Greg Edelman, Stephen DeRosa, Kerry O'Malley, Marylouise Burke, Molly Ephraim, Christopher Sieber, Adam Wylie, Stephen Berger, Adam Brazier, Tracy Nicole Chapman, Melissa Dye, Dennis Kelly, Trent Armand Kendall, Chad Kimball, Jennifer Malenke, Linda Mugleston, Pamela Meyers, Amanda Naughton, Kate Reinders, and Laura Benanti.
Not all fairy tales have a happy ending.
That unfortunately dual-edged message is all that emerges from the revival of Into the Woods that opened tonight at the Broadhurst. This production itself is misguided in so many ways, there is almost no possibility of a "happily ever after" at the end of this story.
Composer Stephen Sondheim and director and author James Lapine have returned to revisit the show (which first opened on Broadway in 1987); there have been a number of changes in the script and the score. Most are minor, with a few new lines, an added song ("Our Little World," written for the London production), new lyrics, and some other changes. All of them make an impression, but none of them are an improvement.
The story finds a number of fairy tales mixed up in a story that charts the impact of wishes and actions without worrying about the consequences. All of the stories (including Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, The Baker and His Wife - devised by Sondheim and Lapine - and others) involve a trek through the woods, each getting tangled up with the others. After the "happily ever after" of the first act, the characters return to discover everything has a price; everyone must pay in turn.
Flaws in 1987 remain flaws today: The characters still pontificate too much about what they learn (usually in song), rather than having it demonstrated through the dramatic action, and the story suffers from perhaps a few too many elements thrown in haphazardly. The problems are magnified here; the adding of a second wolf in the "Hello Little Girl" number, so both handsome princes, Gregg Edelman and Chirstopher Sieber, can leer after young women and pigs respectively is one example of overkill, muting the narrative and interpretive punch of the original into something too jokey.
But much of this revival is that way. The Narrator was never intended to be a participant in the action, as a late plot development demands. With the delightfully funny (and second-billed) John McMartin cast in the role, he now manipulates a flock of birds, interacts some with the other characters, and visibly demonstrates the connection with the Mysterious Man, whom he also portrays.
That he feels like a diversionary tactic is perhaps to be expected given the quality of the cast assembled for this production, which is generally underpowered at best and appallingly bad at worst.
Vanessa Williams, in her vital role as the Witch who sets much of the plot in motion, wrenches almost no meaning from her lines and songs, turning a highly comic and necessary character into one almost useless and unnoticed among the other inhabitants of Into the Woods's magical kingdom. Flubbing joke after joke, providing no character for her ugly self in the first act, and relying on her beauty in the second does not constitute a performance.
Neither does what Marylouise Burke does as Jack's mother. The actress, who scored a heavy comic success earlier this season in Wonder of the World at the Manhattan Theatre Club is completely out of her element here. Missing song cues, blowing laugh lines, and frequently looking lost and confused, her character - welcome comic relief in the first act and a dramatic payoff in the second - is, likewise, a total loss.
Much of the other casting is strangely questionable. Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley as the Baker and his Wife sing well enough, but are personality free, sabotaging vital story elements and providing little sense of a relationship whenever they're together. Molly Ephraim and Adam Wylie as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack find little comedy or emotion in their roles, and never grow up during the course of the play. Edelman and Sieber work well, but far too hard, pushing their comic song, "Agony" beyond the point of endurance.
Laura Benanti, though, brings a thrilling voice and delightful subtlety of character to her Cinderella, and McMartin, as mentioned, is a charmingly paternal standout. Judi Dench provides the voice of the giant who seeks revenge in the second act, giving some of the most effective line readings of the evening. (Her voice was recorded for use here - the other actors just come across that way.) Good as they are, though, none of these performers can rescue the production from the doldrums the rest of the cast thrusts it into.
One person can, and that's Chad Kimball. The character of Jack's cow, Milky-White, was represented by a prop in the original production, but is now a major player in the action. In Kimball's hands (and feet), Milky-White blinks her baleful eyes when sad, twitches her ears, runs to Jack when threatened, and prances across the stage like nothing else in the world matters. Kimball gives a top-quality performance here, making Milky-White lovable, funny, sympathetic, and heart-rending.
But Kimball is so exciting, creating such a full-bodied character, he overshadows everyone else on the stage, a more dangerous real-world equivalent of Dench's giant. No one else can possibly compare, and almost no one comes close. Williams, O'Malley, and DeRosa should be at the center of the show, and they're nowhere in sight.
Aside from Sondheim's mostly good score (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) what are we left with? There's John Carrafa's ugly pedestrian choreography, Brian MacDevitt's brilliant lighting (responsible for creating the giant), Douglas W. Schmidt's decent enough storybook sets, and the attractive if uninspired costumes by Susan Hilferty. There's also Lapine's depressing and inappropriate direction and a cast full of actors flat-out unable to effectively communicate the story to the audience. And, oh yes, a cow who steals every scene, getting laughs and attention the character is too tiny to warrant.
That the overall effect of this Into the Woods is so messy is ultimately less troubling than the sad reality that Lapine and Sondheim allowed themselves to eviscerate their own work in this manner. Did they spend so much time second-guessing their original choices that they forgot that the point should have been to uncover whatever was not visible the first time through?
Into the Woods may never have been one of Sondheim's greatest shows, wearing its message on its sleeve rather than allowing the audience the thrill of putting the pieces together. But it deserves better than this. Audiences expecting a first-class revival of Sondheim's closest approximation of a family work are doomed to find their dreams, like Cinderella's while kneeling over her mother's grave, have been crushed.