Thursday, August 16, 2012

Into the Woods (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Donna Murphy adds another memorable feather to her Sondheim cap with her dynamic portrayal of the Witch in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” ideally set in the sylvan setting of Central Park, as was the Public’s last woodsy offering, “As You Like It.”

This production, directed by Timothy Sheader (with co-direction by Liam Steel) and designed by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour, hails from Regent’s Park in London, the first such import, but with an American cast. And it’s a talented one, to be sure.

There’s film star Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife, Denis O’Hare as the Baker, Chip Zien (the original Baker) as the Mysterious Man, Jessie Mueller, late of “On a Clear Day,” as Cinderella, and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince.

All of them have their moments, though it’s Murphy’s assumption of the role that sets this production apart. She’s in strong voice throughout, and uses it to powerful effect throughout from her opening rap song to “Children Will Listen.” Adams is another plus, handling her songs well, though her tall wig is distracting.

The setting and costumes (by Emily Rebholz) are not always in the conventional fairy tale mode. Cinderella and the Princes are traditionally outfitted, but much of the rest is contemporary with Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, wearing a red biker helmet, John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour‘s set, decked out with stairs and platforms, suggests a Disney or Universal theme park exhibit, as the observant young lady next to me noted to her friend as soon as they took their seats.

There’s no denying Jack’s beanstalk and the giant (voiced by Glenn Close) are cleverly done, but the overall physical look undermines the magic. And the staging underscores perhaps a bit too heavily Sondheim and Lapine’s themes of life, death, loneliness, loss, and so on. Lapine’s original staging, and its variants in London and on tour, as well as the last Broadway revival (also directed by Lapine) with Vanessa Williams in all had more consistently strong casts, and were more persuasive overall.

In Sheader‘s concept, the story is told, not by the usual adult narrator (like John McMartin who did the last Broadway revival), but by a child who’s run away from home, and conjures up these characters as he’s working out his own issues. It’s not a bad idea, and Noah Radcliffe (alternating with Jack Broderick) played him competently, but the conceit feels more than a little forced.

For all that’s quirky about this production, it’s still an enjoyable, crowd-pleasing show, and, of course, the price is more than right.

(The Delacorte, Central Park, free tickets distributed on the day of the show, and through a Virtual Ticketing lottery,; through September 1)
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