by Ben Brantley on May 1, 2002
A bright and beckoning path cuts through the fairy-tale thicket of whimsy and woe that is ”Into the Woods,” the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that opened last night in a new revival at the Broadhurst Theater.
This path is no trail of bread crumbs. It is Mr. Sondheim’s score, which now shows every sign of enduring into happily-ever-after posterity, that keeps leading you onward in a show that does not inspire confidence on all levels. Trust in Mr. Sondheim, though. Follow the music. It will take you somewhere wonderful.
It should probably come as no surprise that ”Into the Woods,” first staged on Broadway only 15 years ago, remains as mixed a blessing as the fulfilled wishes of the show’s ever-dissatisfied characters. Mr. Sondheim has written songs that are indeed like fairy tales in their surface simplicity and echoing depths.
Yet as is often the case with this composer, what surrounds the music only occasionally touches the same levels of complexity. Mr. Sondheim’s very element is ambivalence. This is not, unfortunately, the easiest mood to match in the broadly drawn world of musical comedy.
Not that Mr. Lapine — now, as then, the writer of the show’s book and its director — doesn’t provide intellectual ambition and theatrical flair. This latest, somewhat revised incarnation of ”Into the Woods” has charming story-book scenery (by Douglas W. Schmidt), a beautiful star (Vanessa Williams), optical illusions and a winsome dancing cow (Chad Kimball) to delight the eye.
The evening also features two deliciously drawn performances from Laura Benanti (as Cinderella) and Gregg Edelman (as her Prince) that capture exactly the right balance of archness and anxiety. And there are moments that pierce the heart as no other musical this season does.
Nonetheless, the original problems of ”Into the Woods” persist. Even by the generous standards of magic forests, the woods are awfully crowded. Among its other fairy-tale archetypes: Rapunzel (Melissa Dye); Jack the Giant Killer (Adam Wylie) and his critical mother (a dithery Marylouise Burke); Little Red Riding Hood (Molly Ephraim), plus the custom-made additions of a childless Baker (Stephen DeRosa) and his Wife (Kerry O’Malley).
The plot sends them on intersecting journeys in which they first collide and then learn to cooperate when they are threatened by a vengeful Giantess (seen as a shadow with a voice supplied by Judi Dench, if you please). Acting as arbitrator and commentator are a Witch (Ms. Williams) and a narrator (John McMartin).
Shades of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim dog the characters’ footsteps. Their tales resonate with such mythic-psychiatric staples as abandonment fears, Oedipal loves and hatreds and the romance of the unattainable. What they discover recalls an earlier Sondheim lyric (from ”Do I Hear a Waltz?”): ”Happy endings can spring a leak/Ever after can mean one week.” ”Woods” deals with learning to live with this reality.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, even in the reverberant shorthand of fairy-tale symbolism. And Mr. Lapine’s book, while making fun of its own excesses, keeps piling on details that are more distracting than illuminating with subplots swooping in from left field.
It’s not that the show’s intentions aren’t clear. It’s just that themes are demonstrated in so many ways that they lose impact through repetition and overstatement. And the vagaries of casting determine which characters you’re going to focus on at the expense of the others.
In the 1987 production it was the venturesome Baker’s Wife, astutely played by Joanna Gleason, who became the show’s center. This revival has a winning if less fully defined Baker’s Wife in the person of Ms. O’Malley, and she is nicely partnered by a low-key Mr. DeRosa.
But it is Cinderella and her Prince who dominate this ”Woods,” suggesting Mr. Sondheim’s ”Company” rewritten by the Brothers Grimm. The self-possessed Ms. Benanti sings like an angel. But her character is convincingly of this earth, combining poise and bewilderment as Cinderella lands the Prince she discovers she doesn’t really want.
Like Ms. Benanti, Mr. Edelman gives you character and cartoon in one breath. His fatuous Prince is an expertly rendered medley of vague heroic flourishes with a Nelson Eddy tenor to match. (It is perfectly put to use in ”Agony,” a witty ode to obscure objects of desire performed with Christopher Sieber.)
Ms. Williams is a more qualified success as the Witch, who is transformed from crone-like grotesqueness into dazzling beauty. (The latter incarnation is not a stretch.) She sings appealingly, and she is excellent in conveying the cool, pragmatist side of her character when crisis looms.
What she doesn’t provide is the stridency needed to bring numbers like ”The Last Midnight” to a Broadway-size climax. (Bernadette Peters, who created the role, had no problems in that regard.) Still, the Witch has always been a confusing character, more of a stretched-out guest star turn than a completely realized leading lady.
Since its healthy initial Broadway run, ”Into the Woods” has become the most performed of the shows for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, popular among school, church and community theaters. Accordingly, for its second Broadway version its potential as family entertainment has been emphasized, though how many young children will sit through its nearly three hours of shifting moods is questionable.
Mr. Schmidt’s scenery, equaled in visual appeal by Susan Hilferty’s crazy-quilt costumes, ingeniously uses outsize pop-up books to establish the different story lines. There is sprightly new choreography by John Caraffa.
The casting of Mr. Wylie and Molly Ephraim, two very young-looking teenagers, is presumably intended to invite a sense of identification among young audience members. (The sexual aspects of Red’s encounter with the Big Bad Wolf have pretty much vanished.)
The reliable Mr. McMartin plays the narrator a bit in the manner of the children’s show host Mr. Rogers. In a sense this ”Woods” is a gentrified version of ”Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a place for those who like their instructive porridge served with Champagne. The humor swings between dry Sondheimesque urbanity and a goofiness that recalls the ”Fractured Fairy Tales” of the old ”Rocky and Bullwinkle” shows.
But it doesn’t really fit together. Besides Ms. Benanti and Mr. Edelman, only Jack’s puppet-headed cow, a charming creature that at moments brings to mind the terrified animals of ”Guernica,” is entirely successful in bridging the gaps in tone.
It is when ”Into the Woods” simply sings — in conflict-laced arrangements orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick with musical direction by Paul Gemignani — that you float into an enchanted world whose pleasures and fears bear an only mildly exaggerated relationship to those of everyday life.
Listen to Ms. Williams and Ms. Dye crooning in parent-child disharmony in ”Our Little World” (the one new addition to the 1987 roster of songs). Or Ms. O’Malley on impossible choices in ”Moments in the Woods.” Or the quartet ”No One Is Alone,” a song (like ”Not While I’m Around” from ”Sweeney Todd”) in which solace is all the more poignant for being only provisional.
In such numbers, Mr. Sondheim always manages to express more than one emotion, through disorienting shifts in keys and with dissonance lurking beneath the most straightforward melody lines. At the end of ”Giants in the Sky,” movingly performed by Mr. Wylie, Jack sings that there are ”big tall terrible awesome scary wonderful Giants in the sky!”
Each of the adjectives is matched by a note that seems to explode into darkness, triumph and wonder all at once. What other composer can give you so many feelings in a single line? So by all means, go to ”Into the Woods.” Admire the view. But above all, listen.
INTO THE WOODS
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine; directed by Mr. Lapine; musical direction by Paul Gemignani; choreography by John Carrafa; sets by Douglas W. Schmidt; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; special effects by Gregory Meeh; projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy; illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer; production supervisor, Beverley Randolph; technical supervision, Tech Production Services; fight director, Rick Sordelet; executive producer, Dodger Management Group; associate producer, Lauren Mitchell. Presented by Dodger Theatricals, Stage Holding/Joop van den Ende and TheaterDreams. At the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Vanessa Williams (Witch), John McMartin (Mysterious Man), Laura Benanti (Cinderella), Adam Wylie (Jack), Stephen DeRosa (Baker), Kerry O’Malley (Baker’s Wife), Marylouise Burke (Jack’s Mother), Molly Ephraim (Little Red Ridinghood), Christopher Sieber (Rapunzel’s Prince and a wolf), Gregg Edelman (Cinderella’s Prince and a wolf) and Chad Kimball (Milky-White, the cow).