I have spent weeks eagerly anticipating the new production of Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, one of the two shows mounted this summer as part of the fiftieth season of Shakespeare in the Park. The musical, originally produced on Broadway in 1987, is a seminal Stephen Sondheim show, partly in thanks to the filmed stage production featuring the original Broadway cast that included the likes of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien. (It’s on Netflix Instant: watch it!) That original production is iconic in the same vein as the fairy tales it features and eventually skewers. There’s Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (of beanstalk-climbing fame), and Little Red Riding Hood. But after years of Disneyfied explorations into the virginal side of fairy tales, Into the Woods (which Sondheim co-wrote with director James Lapine, based on The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim) shows the darker side of those classic stories.
It’s that darkness that is more prevalent in this new production directed by Timothy Sheader, who helmed a similar production at the Regent’s Open Air Theatre two summers ago in London. Sure, Sheader utilizes a lot of theater tricks that wow the audience, many of whom waited in line in the early hours of the morning to get free tickets to the show. Most spectacularly, there’s the three-story tree-house set that looks like something out of The Swiss Family Robinson. And then there’s the familiar go-to in theater nowadays: the cast full of bold-faced names. Amy Adams makes her New York stage debut as the Baker’s Wife, a role she’s possibly too sweet and nice to pull off (despite her best efforts). True Blood and American Horror Story‘s Denis O’Hare delivers an solid attempt at a bumbling and endearing Baker. Most impressively (and perhaps, most underwhelming) is Chip Zien’s appearance as The Mysterious Man, a role that is usually double-cast with the Narrator (who in this show is a little boy, which allows for a groan-inducing but ultimately effective framing device); don’t worry: he also shows up in the thankless role of Cinderella’s father.
Rounding out the celebrity cast list is the pre-recorded voice Glenn Close, lending her dulcet tones to the role of the giant in the second act. But two standouts are, not surprisingly, in the two best roles in the show. Jessie Mueller is astounding as Cinderella, with her glamour impossible to hide under the frumpy, nerdy dress and glasses she dons for most of the show. And, of course, there’s Donna Murphy as the Witch. While Bernadette Peters brought a lightheartedness to the role 25 years ago, Murphy’s witch is all darkness and meanness, and whatever comic tones she does deliver are matched by her deeper register. Still, it’s clear that beneath the matted hair, claws, and fungal mask lies Murphy’s wicked sense of humor, and her approach is a necessary departure from the borderline saccharine overtones of Peters’s original.
Those overtones, however, create the biggest problems in this production. Sondheim’s words and phrases are obvious: he examines the complex nature of human behavior, particularly the notions of right and wrong. While those themes are overtly evident in the lines sung by all of the actors, particularly in the second act, Sheader’s direction hits the audience on the head, as if he’s expecting them to be distracted by the overwhelming set and the mish-mashed modern costumes. Take, for example, the incredibly uncomfortable rape scene in the first act between the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. Sondheim’s lyrics make it clear that there’s a sexual subtext, but all subtlety is lost during an instance of simulated oral sex. Later, in the second act, there’s a very plainly post-coital moment between the baker’s wife and Cinderella’s prince. These moments are not only somewhat insulting of the audience’s intelligence and comprehension, but also invoke some severe concerns about the poor young narrator who is constructing these events in his mind.
But despite all of its missteps—and there are many—this production succeeds in part because it’s, well, Into the Woods. It’s a complicated musical, one that is so beloved and appreciated, that’s it’s still hard not to experience absolute joy when those familiar characters manically and neurotically traipse through the woods, falling down and bumping into each other. They are, after all, little parts of us on stage, and those basic human emotions are still recognizable underneath the heavy costumes and make-up. That’s what ultimately makes Into the Woods so appealing—the tunes only heighten the superb examination of human psychology. This is the second New York revival of the show, and I wonder if any production will truly succeed in the manner of the original. It’s unlikely, but with each production is a reminder that the show, at its core, reaches near perfection, and it doesn’t necessarily require the stunt-casting or intricate production design to achieve it.