Review - Into The Woods: Nice Is Different Than Good

When Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's moralistic take on traditional European fairy tales, mostly penned by The Brothers Grimm, last hit town in a major production, it was April of 2002. The city was still very much rattled by the events of the past September, but a positive spirit was growing from our observances of acts of heroism surrounding us.

Review - Into The Woods:  Nice Is Different Than GoodStill, the question that haunted many Americans at that time was, "Why do they hate us?" as the country grew less confident in the traditional belief that we have always been the world's good guys. It was during this uncertain time that Broadway audiences watched a childless baker and an abandoned Cinderella comfort an orphaned pair of children, Red Riding Hood and Jack, of beanstalk fame, with a quiet lullaby that summarized the second act's theme of the subjectivity of right and wrong.

"Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what's right. You decide what's good," instructs the lyric of "No One Is Alone," as they prepare to kill an enemy whose only offense is the desire for justice against the boy who stole her property and murdered her husband.

There are many such discomforting moments in the often-brilliant text of Into The Woods. Little Red Riding Hood is depicted as a precocious child who disobeys her mother's instructions because the cunning wolf brings out early pangs of pubescent sexual awareness she's too young to understand or control. An elderly woman is impulsively killed in an attempt to keep her from acting in a manner that was putting her community in danger and the person who killed her defends himself to those who might have died if not for his actions by saying he was thinking of the greater good. A wife cheats on her husband when a handsome prince arrives, only to be dumped the next morning and left to debate the morality of stepping out of your vows, just for a moment of fantasy fulfillment.

In America, our fairy tale culture is most familiar as presented by the Walt Disney Company, which tells us that wishes come true. Lapine and Sondheim caution us that, "Wishes come true, not free."

The new Delacorte production of Into The Woods is New York's first high-profile mounting not directed by its bookwriter, Lapine. Co-directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have based this one on their Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production, though with a new cast and new design elements it's not exactly a copy of what played in London. And while it's always nice to have new ideas and new interpretations injected into old favorites - and New York audiences have learned a lot in recent years about how our British friends like to inject new ideas and new interpretations into our musicals - "nice," as Sondheim has Red Riding Hood sing, "is different than good."

In many ways, it is a perfectly nice production, featuring a talented company of actors and several delightful surprises. Someone who has never seen the musical before, and who appreciates serious-minded and literate musical comedy, would certainly find it a worthwhile evening just for the sake of being exposed to the material.

But "good" would be a production that allows for the intimacy needed for Sondheim's intricate, razor-sharp lyrics and Lapine's fantasy-deflating dialogue to pull the audience in. The Delecorte's large stage and semi-circular arena style seating is not the kind of space designed for rapid wordplay, especially when set designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour place a vertical maze of trees - making up stairways, walkways and a tower - so far upstage that the actors lose any connection with the audience during the numerous scenes played there. And even when playing further downstage, Ben Stanton's too dim lighting made facial expressions difficult to take in, even from my second row seat, until the brightness was finally turned up for the bows. In what seems to be an attempt to cover all angles of the stage, ensemble scenes are so spread out that it's often difficult to tell who is singing or speaking solo lines. This Into The Woods may be heard, but it isn't felt.

This is an actor's musical, but more thought seems to have gone into stagecraft. It is very impressive stagecraft, though. The beanstalk created out of green umbrellas is rather fun, as is the puppetry involved in creating the giant (voiced by Glenn Close), though choosing to have the giant wear glasses does raise a question about the feasibility of the story's ending. And the technique used to climb up Rapunzel's hair would probably be quite enjoyable to see, if I could see it.

Sheader and Steel have thrown a hodge-podge of ideas into the text, many of them very entertaining, though not all of them make complete sense. The most daring move was to change the character of the narrator from a grown man to a contemporary young boy, perhaps around 12, who, by way of a brief prologue, we find has run away from home to some wooded rural area. Perhaps as a way to alleviate his fears, he takes an assortment of dolls out of his knapsack and begins reciting the story of a baker and his wife who could not bear children because the witch next door placed a curse on their family as punishment for an act of theft. To lift the curse they must deliver to her, "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold." This task, of course, leads to encounters with Jack, Little Red, Rapunzel and Cinderella, as they lie, steal, double-talk and deceive in order to be blessed with a child.

The second act, which deals with the cost of having wishes come true, is presented as a nightmare the child is having while sleeping outdoors on the wood chips. Those familiar with the show may question if that choice is consistent with what the book eventually tells us about the narrator character. Nevertheless Noah Radcliffe, who alternates in the role with Jack Broderick, has a fine stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.

Review - Into The Woods:  Nice Is Different Than GoodCostume designer Emily Rebholz, who makes Cinderella's step-family look like club kids from Boy George's Taboo, dresses Sarah Stiles' Little Red Riding Hood as a sort of punked out biker chick. A very talented and funny performer, Stiles plays the role broadly in a boisterous little girl voice and gets her laughs. Having the role played by an adult allows for some graphic comedy between Red and the wolf (a lusty and macho Ivan Hernandez, dressed like he's about to go on a road tour of Hair), such as the scene where the wolf eating Red is presented to mean that he's giving her oral sex, but not having the role played by an actual little girl, as was done in the musical's two Broadway productions, takes away Red's naïve inquisitiveness about her sexual awakening, which is written so charmingly and subtly into her lyrics.

As the baker's wife, Amy Adams shows some strong singing pipes but she's barely playing a character, reducing a role that's loaded with witty moments into a bland, humorless cipher. As her husband, Denis O'Hare seems almost too grounded in a grim reality, though he does play his familiar pattern of flatly speeding through lines sprinkled with sudden blasts of emotion.

Donna Murphy's witch is designed to look like a human tree, but her impressive costume pretty much leaves one of Broadway's top comical leading ladies unable to perform, buried under a concept.

Fortunately, Chip Zien's Mysterious Man costume allows the ingratiating actor free reign to work his gently humorous charms. The original baker in the musical's initial run, Zien captures the spirited mixture of urban sophistication and innocence that makes Into The Woods work. His skillful touch with the material will make you believe the magical kingdom is an upper west side apartment with a view of the Hudson and within the delivery range of Zabar's.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Donna Murphy and Tess Soltau; Bottom: Sarah Stiles and Ivan Hernandez.

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