"Into the Woods" Review: Not Out of the Woods

There are moments in the woods. And in the Public Theater's uneven revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in Central Park, there are some good moments and some not so good moments.

The musical, which boasts one of Sondheim's most inspired scores and lyrics and a clever book by James Lapine, shuffles half a dozen Grimm's fairy tales into a frightening and funny story of yearning and questing, of romance and revenge, of a witch's curse and some magical beans.

In Sondheim's and Lapine's neck of the woods, the Baker and his Wife are longing for a child, but the Witch next door has put them under a barren curse that she will lift only if they can produce a white cow, a red cape, a lock of yellow hair, and a golden slipper. Enter Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. From then on, as one song attests, anything can happen in the woods.

The good news from the Public's revival is that Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams bring credibility and a droll humor to the roles of the Baker and his Wife, qualities that are sometimes lost in other performances that veer toward exaggeration. O'Hare is especially touching in "No More," a duet with the Mysterious Man (a delightful turn by Chip Zien, who played the Baker in the original 1987 production of Into the Woods).
More problematic, however, is Donna Murphy as the Witch. Hobbling on crutches of two gnarled tree limbs and wigged with Medusa-like dreadlocks, Murphy's Witch is really a nasty piece of goods. She is as mean-spirited as a Dickensian crone with nothing but hard edges and none of the sense of irony or wit that Bernadette Peters brought to the original role and that is essential if the audience can find any empathy with the character. Her second act "Lament" is a trifle manic.

At times the Public staging, directed by Timothy Sheader and co-directed by Liam Steel, can't seem to decide which direction it wants to go. As with real fairy tales, there are serious themes that run through the fabulist story and songs, but they are given short shrift. Many scenes indulge in a campiness that renders some performances being little more caricature.
The two princes who pursue Rapunzel and Cinderella, for example, more resemble Elvis impersonators with little of the actual charm necessary for bona fide Prince Charmings (though Cooper Grodin and Ivan Hernandez deliver a good rendition of the princes' signature song, "Agony").

Any hint of double entendres or naughtiness in the lyrics or dialogue is played up with a wink and a nudge, and the directors cannot resist inserting business that, one assumes, they feel is necessary for a hip modern audience. Little Red Ridinghood, wearing a red skateboard helmet and sporting a tattoo of a wolf, keeps snapping pictures of herself with her camera.
There are, however, other bright moments in the Central Park revival. Gideon Glick is full of energy as Jack and his affection for his pet cow is genuine (though the puppet cow is pretty lame). Jessie Mueller is a convincing Cinderella and has a lovely voice, and Sarah Stiles is pert and sassy as Little Red Ridinghood, despite all the silly business she's given. The penultimate number "No One Is Alone," one of Sondheim's most hopeful and moving songs, is given a lovely treatment by Mueller and O'Hare.

The action takes place on a jungle gym of a set by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour that rises to three levels of platforms connected by rickety stairs and ladders and ending in a treetop bird's nest in which Rapunzel is esconced. And there's a fairly imaginative Giant with a stern voiceover provided by Glenn Close.