21 August 2012

Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ in Central Park

Children Will Narrate: Broderick (center), with the ensemble cast.

That Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical Into the Woods survives its current revival — perversely timed to coincide with the show’s 25th anniversary — in Central Park is testament to the fundamental strengths of a piece that is in many ways (and like virtually every other work Sondheim has produced for the stage) flawed in many important respects. No matter how director Timothy Sheader abuses the staging and misinterprets the book (by James Lapine), and no matter how tired I am of hearing conductor Paul Gemignani play Sondheim’s music, Into the Woods retains much of its charm. Indeed, I’m not sure I appreciated just how strong the show really is, before I saw what Sheader did to it.

That said, my reaction was typical of my experiences with the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, which I’ve avoided for many years now: tired of stunt celebrity casting and inept direction, I simply couldn’t be bothered to endure the lines for free tickets, the variable weather conditions and tinny amplification in the open air. I didn’t lose my admiration for Shakespeare, and I don’t plan on abandoning Sondheim now, but the rewards didn’t justify the continued disappointments. In this case, I had to overcome an additional obstacle: namely, memories of the original Broadway production, which I saw on opening night.

Sheader starts by misunderstanding Lapine’s two-act structure: in Act I, we’re introduced to the characters and their stories, and we see them arrive at a “happily ever after” ending; in Act II, we see what happens after, and in the process we de- and reconstruct the stories, exploring the consequences of the compromises our heroes have made. (Lapine uses a similar two-part structure in Sunday in the Park with George, his earlier collaboration with Sondheim.) By wrenching the fairy tales out of their context, by modernizing them, sexing them up, and toughening them (far beyond the somewhat cynical treatment Lapine and Sondheim give them), Sheader pretty much has no place left to go by the time he gets to Act II, overlong already and here meandering and dragging to the edge of pointlessness.

There Will Be Beans: Jack (Gideon Glick) trades his cow.
Puppets by Rachel Canning lent imaginative fun to the production.

And while I don’t object to the selection of a child (Jack Broderick) to play the Narrator, I did find the framing device (the boy runs away from his father and hides in the woods) unhelpful and the extra stage business (he uses toys, too small to be seen from Row R, to tell the fairy tales) complicating of narration that is, after all, supposed to keep the plotlines clear. The toys, like the Narrator’s physical interventions in the drama, made the staging busier and persistently stole focus from the principal action.

Compound all of this with a stupefying misreading of the show’s central characters, the Baker and his Wife, miscast with actors who in other circumstances are admirable, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. Yet several of the other performances are sterling, Sondheim’s music and lyrics are appealing, and John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s treehouse set is a perfect fit both for the play and for the Park. Luckiest of all for Sheader, the audience, this writer included, really wants to enjoy the show.

Flour Power? O’Hare and Adams as the Baker and his Wife.

You wonder how this project got approved by the Public. The production is based on one Sheader originated in London’s Regent’s Park, two years ago, but revamped for New York. Was the first any smarter or more successful than the second? Or was it merely convenient? Or, like John Doyle’s recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, was this yet another case in which the producers know Sondheim’s work so well that they’re bored by it and don’t really care whether it’s presented intelligibly, so long as it’s different?

Here’s an example of how things have gone wrong at the Delacorte. In the original production, the Wolf’s first number, “Hello, Little Girl,” succeeded in part by surprise: we didn’t expect the Red Riding Hood story to be sexy, and yet this Wolf delivered an unctuously suggestive and very funny pick-up routine. In Sheader’s staging, however, everything is sexy already, and Sarah Stiles’ lustily Lolita-esque Little Red (easily the best performance in the show, I hasten to observe) is no innocent: no matter how Ivan Hernandez, as the Wolf, slinks and bumps and grinds, the song simply doesn’t make the same impact.

Adams in Enchanted.
I hope this isn’t the last that New York theater (or Central Park, for that matter) will see of her. She’s got so much to offer.

Hitherto I’d believed Denis O’Hare to be capable of absolutely anything as an actor, but now I have discovered one shortcoming: he can’t generate onstage chemistry with Amy Adams, a charming movie actress making a rare stage appearance that is also her New York debut. As the Baker and his Wife, they’re entirely misdirected: the Wife is supposed to dominate the Baker, not in an unpleasant way but by dint of her superior sense and determination. When he observes, “I’ve depended on her for everything,” he really means it, and not only in an emotional context. In the original production, the great Joanna Gleason may not really have been a foot taller than Chip Zien, but she seemed it; here, Adams practically recedes into the woodchips on the floor.

While she’s not the world’s most confident singer, and while her upper register may not attain quite the heights that the role of Cinderella requires, you do wonder why Adams wasn’t cast in that other role. She might have been marvelous, and she could have had good fun recalling the last time she sang a fairy tale in Central Park, in the Disney movie Enchanted. O’Hare encounters particular difficulty when singing harmony, especially in “You Are Not Alone,” but otherwise he’s so assured onstage that he can’t even meet Adams halfway. “It Takes Two,” as their duet says — and the number falls short of the mark here.

Moreover, the Baker and his Wife are intended to represent the “contemporary urban American” voices in this show. As Sondheim observes in an excerpt from Look, I Made a Hat, his memoir, quoted in the program, this couple’s concerns are mundane — and entirely like ours. Their responses to the curses, fantasy, and whimsy of the fairy tale are much like what ours would be. When every single character is dressed in contemporary urban clothing (designed by Emily Rebholz), then the stage director is already providing the kind of comment on the action that’s supposed to belong to the Baker and his Wife exclusively.

Red-hot Broadway: The Great Donna Murphy, in Act II.

Donna Murphy fares considerably better as the Witch, striking just the right balance between hamminess, when she terrorizes the other characters, and tenderness, when she interacts with her “daughter,” Rapunzel.* Murphy commands our attention whether she’s swathed in crone drag or slinking around in a glamorous gown. A true star, she sings with such individuality and character, rangy, slightly slurring even while her consonants remain crisp. Though I often decry the lack of authentic divas among the younger generations of Broadway artists (and sometimes describe Bernadette as the last of this endangered species), I must remember: we’ve still got Donna.

In addition to Stiles as Little Red, I admired Kristine Zbornik (as Jack’s Mother) and warmed to Jessie Mueller (as Cinderella); Ellen Harvey proved amusing as Cinderella’s Stepmother, and no less than Zien himself fought against hyperactive stage direction (presumably by co-director Liam Steel) and heavy makeup to make an impression as the Mysterious Man. The Princes’ duet, “Agony,” my favorite number in the show, received spirited renditions from Hernandez and Cooper Grodin.

In that number, I understand one Prince’s quotations of Rapunzel’s signature “Ah ah ah” as a musical springboard into the next iteration of the cry of “Agony!” Here, however, the ideas were discrete, and it brings us to the subject of Gemignani. With no disrespect intended either to that gentleman or to his long history with Sondheim, I am eager to hear more often somebody else tackle this composer’s work.

Because Gemignani conducts most original productions and revivals and concert performances of Sondheim, we have but scant notion how another musician might interpret the scores. Ultimately, the persistent favoritism shown to Gemignani is less a tribute to an historic collaboration than a disservice to audiences and to Sondheim’s reputation as a serious composer.

Members of the original Broadway cast, 1987.
In the foreground, you can see Bernadette Peters, with Danielle Ferland, Chip Zien, and Joanna Gleason just behind her.
All the way in the background is Edmund Lyndeck, the original Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, here playing Cinderella’s Father.

It’s conceivable, for example, that another conductor might find ways to propel the show’s long, long final sequence (made longer here by the reprise of Sheader’s framing device). Much of that length is the fault of Lapine as a book writer, who can’t quite tie up all the loose ends. And yet as a stage director he achieved something in the original production with which Sheader seems altogether unfamiliar: magic.

Oh, how we marveled at the original production! And not only Bernadette and Joanna’s justly legendary performances, but also Kim Crosby’s Cinderella and Danielle Ferland’s unforgettable Little Red, and Westenberg’s Wolf and Ben Wright’s Jack. In 1987, this show was bigger than a fight between a little boy and his father, as Sheader would have it; it was about inventing family from scratch when it seemed that no one else was left to care for us. Back then, when the Giant’s Wife thundered around the stage, we understood what Sondheim and Lapine were trying to tell us about fairy tales and growing up. We saw AIDS and the threat of nuclear war, and because “children will listen,” we believed, for a few hours at least, that “no one is alone.”

This show will survive, and it deserves to. Not unlike the rest of us.

Inventing a family: Mueller (Cinderella), Stiles (Little Red), Gideon Glick (Jack), and O’Hare (Baker).

*NOTE: Donna Murphy played the witch in a Rapunzel story once before, and very differently, in the Disney animated movie Tangled.

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