The original Broadway production of Into the Woods and the wonderful RCA cast album that it spawned boasted a stellar ensemble, featuring such formidable talents as Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, and Robert Westenberg. The current cast has, often unfavorably and perhaps unfairly, been compared to these creators of the various roles. In fact, most of the new crop--notably Laura Benanti (as Cinderella), Stephen DeRosa (the Baker), and Kerry O'Malley (Baker's Wife)--are worthy successors. And, yet, they haven't really brought anything new to their parts.
What surely was a decisive factor in this recording being made is the fact that the revival stars Vanessa Williams as the Witch who puts a curse on the Baker and his Wife, thus setting the musical's narrative into motion. Replacing a genuine Broadway diva like Peters with a pop diva is usually not the smartest idea, but Williams--a fine singer and actress who already has some Broadway experience--acquits herself nicely on the album. She's especially good in "The Last Midnight" and the anthem "Children Will Listen" but, unfortunately, she doesn't quite capture the heartrending beauty of two of the show's most underrated songs, "Stay With Me" and "Lament."
The other star of the revival, John McMartin, gives one of the more distinctive performances in his role as the Narrator/Mysterious Man. Though Tom Aldredge provided much in the way of character as the curmudgeonly Mysterious Man in the original production, he was lacking in vocal ability; but John McMartin, old musical theater pro that he is, makes his mark on the recording, particularly in his "No More" duet with the Baker. The rest of the cast is very good, from guys like Gregg Edelman and Christopher Sieber (who have been doing solid Broadway work for years) to Molly V. Ephraim and Adam Wylie (charming and talented newcomers whom I hope to see often for years to come).
There are a few differences between the material on this CD and the original cast recording, the most significant being the inclusion of "Our Little World," a song that was added for the London production of the show. This duet between the Witch and Rapunzel (Melissa Dye) about the joys of a secluded mother/daughter relationship is hardly one of the best songs in the score, but it is cute, and Williams and Dye have the interesting melody and the ironic lyrics down pat. Other minor changes: Notice the way the ensemble sings "oooh" in the last section of the lengthy "Into the Woods" prologue, and how Jack and Little Red Riding join Cinderella at the end of "On the Steps of the Palace." These musical alterations and several minor changes in the lyrics will surely be of interest to Sondheim fetishists. Die-hards will also be pleased that all of the show's lyrics, as well as a good synopsis and some nice color photos of the production and the recording session, are included in the hefty booklet accompanying the CD.
Needless to say, the orchestra sounds fantastic playing Jonathan Tunick's charts under the experienced hand of musical director Paul Gemignani. But, as good as this recording is, only completists (and, maybe, Vanessa Williams fans) will probably consider it a necessary addition to their collection. Those who already have the RCA album will likely consider $17.99 too much money to pay for a new recording that has so little to distinguish it from the original.