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Witchy, witchy woman:
Vanessa Williams in Into the Woods
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"The light is getting dimmer / I think I see a glimmer," observes Stephen Sondheim in a Samuel Beckettian moment of his musical Into the Woods. The lauded songwriter, known for his examinations of ambiguity, teamed with playwright-director James Lapine in 1987 to use traditional fairy tales to examine the hope and despair inherent in the human condition. In the resulting tapioca pudding of a tuner, they enlisted Cinderella and her step-family, Jack of the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood, a couple of Prince Charmings, a wicked witch, a baker and his wife to literalize psychological dilemmas and impart a few helpful lessons.

Slightly revised and with an additional song ("Our Little World"), the enterprise is back on Broadway to delight new audiences and, at times, to try their patience. The most noticeable change from the original production--the revival is again directed by Lapine--is that Jack's cow, once a pull toy, in now an actor in a floppy cow suit, the better to express the bovine's very human emotions. This scene-stealing creature is played by the nimble Chad Kimball, who reveals himself at the curtain call. The thing is, it's fair to suggest that a show in which a cow earns the most appreciative audience whoops might have one or two tiny problems.

Into the Woods exemplifies Sondheim's career-long exposition on the pros and cons of hopes and dreams; here, as elsewhere, he suggests that these can at times be destructive follies. He and Lapine imagine a scenario in which various fairy tale figures meet while trying to fulfill their respective wishes and sort out their respective dilemmas. Keeping some familiar elements of the stories but discarding others, the creators devise a narrative in which the baker (Stephen DeRosa) and his wife (Kerry O'Malley), longing to have a child, must neutralize a witch's curse by finding a milky-white cow, a golden slipper, a cape as red as blood, and a lock of hair as yellow as corn. To these ends, they spend the first act pursuing Jack (Adam Wylie), Rapunzel (Melissa Dye), Red Ridinghood (Molly Ephraim), and Cinderella (Laura Benanti). Once they have rounded up the required booty, they achieve their promised happily ever after, as do their fellow woods-wanderers. Especially elated is the ugly witch (Vanessa Williams), who is transformed into a sultry knockout.

This being a Sondheim work, however, the notion of people living happily ever after is quickly squashed--literally and at length. The second act of Into the Woods introduces a giant, come to dash the hopes of the play's population and to thin the ranks. Declaring herself to be the avenging wife of the monster whom Jack slew, this ogress, seen only in silhouette and voiced by an uncredited Judi Dench, leads the now wobegone fairytale folk to understand that life may be peaches and cream but, if so, peaches become mushy and cream sours in no time. (This no-nonsense comment on disillusionment is reminiscent of The Fantasticks, which also has a happy-ever-after first act closer and a second act that begins with the remark, "This plum is too ripe.")

The Into the Woods premise of figures from various fairy tales encountering each other is promising. This conceit is introduced by a narrator (John McMartin) in the prologue as the show gets off to a rousingly polyphonic start. Along the way, Sondheim and Lapine share a few other enchanting notions about enchantment. When the wolves (Gregg Edelman, Christopher Sieber) who pursue Little Red Ridinghood bump into each other and join in singing "Hello, Little Girl," the result is leeringly cheerful. That the wolves also play the two handsome princes carries its own symbolism, suggesting that the madonna-whore view of women has its male counterpart. There's fun to be had with these two fellows, particularly when Cinderella's prince states, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."

Call my agent!
Chad Kimball as Milky-White in Into the Woods
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The score has some wonderful moments, alternately punchy and plangent. The princes get to moan humorously about love's travails in "Agony," the morphed witch notes meaningfully that "Children Will Listen," and the surviving members of the cast poignantly declare that "No One Is Alone." But those last two songs, distinguished by Sondheim's blend of intelligently rhymed lyrics and soothing melodies, also display the main trouble of Into the Woods: namely, its didactic tone. Sondheim and Lapine have gone into their own woods but failed to find their way out of the ensnaring tangle of ideas. There is something contrived about their conflation of fairy tales into a Bruno Bettelheim-like treatise on childhood, the need to leave home in order to mature, and the emotional and biological glues that hold families together.

It's as if Jack, Cinderella, and company aren't so much wandering in the woods as out on a forced march to get the Sondheim-Lapine beliefs across. Too often, as the complications intensify, the dialogue and songs end up sounding like resolutions in a debate. The lyrics are prolix, the rhymes incessant. Take the following lyrics, which the princes swap: "A thicket's no trick. Is it thick?" "It's the thickest." "The quickest is pick it apart with a stick." "Yes, but even one prick--it's my thing about blood." "Well, it's sick." "It's no sicker than your thing with the dwarves." Brilliant, but a score can begin to sink under the weight of such verbal gymnastics. If audiences--much less actors--can't catch their breath, where's the time to feel, reflect, and/or laugh?

Though the actors are staunch as they acquit their duties, the individual performances don't register strongly. It's almost as if the material has become an equivalent of that second-act monster: a heavy foot trouncing the cast into soup. Stephen DeRosa as the baker and Kerry O'Malley as his wife have a certain appeal. So does the sweet-faced Adam Wylie, who gets to sing one of the better pieces, "Giants in the Sky." Gregg Edelman and Christopher Sieber make the wolves and princes good company. Laura Benanti, who has built an excellent reputation for herself over the last couple of years, is sweet and tart but doesn't leave much of an impression.

Neither, it's sad to report, does Vanessa Williams, who spends the first half of the play under heavy fright makeup and then, when finally revealed in all her remarkable beauty, is still shy of radiance. John McMartin comes and goes with a nice lightness, sometimes in beard and long jacket as a so-called "Mysterious Man." But much of the rest of the crowd, including the usually wonderful Pamela Myers, seem little more than bobbing ciphers.

Indubitably impressive are the design elements of the show, which owe something but not everything to the original production. Douglas W. Schmidt's sets include a number of giant-sized books that revolve to reveal cozy cottages; the spine of another book doubles as Rapunzel's tower. Schmidt's woods are also wondrous--gnarled tree trunks and branches, covered in the first act with large, glistening, spring-green leaves and bare in the second act. Susan Hilferty's costumes are bright or shabby as necessary, and the same can be said for Brian MacDevitt's lighting. Andrew Benepe and Paul Rice constructed the adorable cow.

Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier ups the ante with his processing of the giant lady giant's echoing voice, although he might have gone a little softer on the pre-curtain bird songs. Gregory Meeh does well in handling the special effects, including a few of the witch's tricks. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations remain impeccable. Into the Woods? Yes, and with much skill. Out of the woods? Not entirely.

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