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Oh, the questions that circulated when this summer's Shakespeare in the Park revival of Into the Woods was announced.
Who'd play the Baker, that woebegone would-be father at the center of Stephen Sondheim's fractured musical fairy tale?
Who'd step into the star role of the vengeful Witch, played notably by Bernadette Peters in the premiere and by Vanessa Williams in the 2002 revival?
How would the show work in a giant outdoor amphitheater, amid the trees and lawns and urban clatter of Central Park?
And most critically, asked the chat-room chatterers, as they poured libations to the theater gods, would the thing be enough of a hit to earn a Broadway transfer?
That last answer will have to wait a bit. As for the others:
-- Denis O'Hare, of True Blood and American Horror Story, turns out to be a wonderfully subtle Baker, second-guessing even his own desires as he scrambles through the enchanted forest in search of four talismans that will earn the Witch's forgiveness and end a decades-old family curse that dooms his wife to barrenness: "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair the color of corn, the slipper as pure as gold."
-- Donna Murphy, as the sorceress seeking to undo a curse of her own, turns in a performance monumental enough to fill every corner of the 1,800-seat Delacorte Theater, navigating some of Sondheim's trickiest lyrics with barely a bobble, and communicating pretty clearly despite a costume that, for much of the show, wraps her in a thicket of gnarly branches and vines.
-- The set, by John Lee Beatty (who adapted an earlier London staging), sends the characters scrambling up, under and along a multitiered collection of platforms and ladders, all crowned by a leafy bower that'll serve first as Rapunzel's tower prison and later as a refuge for the distraught, bereaved Jack, once all the consequences of his beanstalk adventures have come home to roost.
-- And the massive, whimsically terrifying lady-giant puppet who lays waste to Cinderella's kingdom is, for efficiency and impact, one of the most striking coups de theatre I've seen in some time. (She's voiced, it's worth noting, by Glenn Close, who clearly had a great time in that recording studio.)
Those wins, though, aren't terribly surprising. O'Hare's gentle, off-kilter appeal helped win him a Tony Award for the baseball-obsessed comedy Take Me Out in 2003. Murphy is a Broadway veteran revered for her commitment to characterization and the power of her voice. (She also, for connect-the-dots fans, voiced the character of Rapunzel's captor-caretaker in Disney's animated adventure Tangled.) And questions of noise pollution aside, the idea of blurring the boundaries between set and setting was always an intoxicating challenge — one that Beatty has delivered on handsomely.
The surprises come in smaller but no less potent packages. Chief among them is Sarah Stiles' punktastic Little Red, full of sass and hungry for more than just the sticky buns she stocks up on at the Baker's house in the opening sequence. She's greedy for experience of all kinds — the passage from childhood to maturity, with all its terrors and joys and sorrows, being the show's major theme. And when he encounters this decidedly knowing Little Red, Ivan Hernandez's sneering, sexually predatory Wolf will discover that not all fairy-tale pubescents are equally innocent, and that he may be trying to bite off more than he's prepared to chew.
Jessie Mueller's Cinderella is another plus, true of voice and quirky enough to be convincing as a princess who, in this version of the story, doesn't settle into the palace too well. And your mileage may vary, but I rather enjoyed the club-freak stepmother and stepsisters, with their goth fashions and their coke habits and their arrogantly angular physicality.
All of that said, this Into the Woods is a bit overthought for its own good. British director Timothy Sheader has added a framing device that grounds what can be a wrenching, sobering story a whit too firmly in the real world; the whole evening, in this telling, has to do with a little boy (a terrifically poised Jack Broderick) who's had a fight with Dad and run away into the forest, where he tells himself bedtime stories and conjures up the characters whose misadventures teach us that happily ever after really is a fairy tale.
The scale of that fascinating set adds to the difficulty. The events of Into the Woods, to say nothing of James Lapine's dialogue, are more than a little knotty, and with everyone scurrying up and down and in and out all night, this production can be tough to follow; it's like that kid narrator has a serious case of ADD. (Liam Steel's precise but hectic, overspecific choreography doesn't help.)
I haven't said anything about Amy Adams, whose charms are considerable and who sings quite prettily, but whose movie-star charisma doesn't quite convey; the designers have put her in a big red Charlotte Rae pouff of a wig, presumably to make her look frumpy enough to be a convincing Baker's Wife, but it mostly makes her look self-conscious. Give her credit, though, for a full-throated reading of the show's most delicious eye-roller of a lyric — you know, the one about the ends justifying the beans. If only I could feel that way about the evening as a whole.