Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods is a most enchanted idea for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park season. Director Timothy Sheader has laid on top of this most perfect work a concept that employs a little boy as the Narrator (Jack Broderick), having run away and lost in the woods where he tells us the familiar stories, lives the second act as a dream and wakes up to be reunited with his father (Denis O’Hare, who also plays the Baker). All this added nonsense is completely unnecessary and does not enhance or improve the show, nor does it highlight the themes any more than the show itself is able to do all by itself without Mr. Sheader’s meddling. On the other hand, Mr. Sheader’s concept doesn’t really hurt the show, but any thoughts that his concept would make the show “relevant” for today is hogwash, for the show is perfectly capable of surviving the years and exploring the human condition today, just as it did in 1987 when it first appeared on Broadway.
Blending in with the natural surroundings of Central Park, John Lee Beaty and Soutra Gilmour have designed a tree house of levels that seem to have grown out of the ground like Jack’s beanstalk. The director and Co-Director Liam Steel make great use of the several levels, though I wish they had brought the action down closer to the audience more often. The large stage can cause the performance to seem remote when the staging is concentrated in the tree house among the foliage. The structure of levels also allows for the brilliant idea of making the Giant (voiced by Glenn Close) a delightful puppet creation. Cast members upon a spiral staircase open green umbrellas to create the growing beanstalk––another simple and brilliant idea.
Emily Rebholz has designed the costumes drawing from a variety of eras and signifying sources such as pop culture, modern trends and early twentieth century ideas that pull together into a whimsical mix that registers as an original mythical world supposedly dreamed up by the boy Narrator. The production looks unified and is visually intriguing.
The Baker’s Wife is played with sweetness by Amy Adams, who doesn’t begin to possess the comic chops of the original Joanna Gleason, but is amiable and sings with a light and pretty touch. Unfortunately her counterpart, the Baker, is played by Denis O’Hare, who in past New York outings has been quite wonderful in many things, but he has lost his voice, uses a sloppy diction and plays the part as a dimwitted twit. His version of the character is rather unlikeable and all this is going on with the original Baker, Chip Zien, looking on as the Mysterious Man. Mr. Zien makes more of his new character than one ever thought possible, singing in that same strong voice heard in 1987 and finding numerous quirks and traits to make a limited character full of texture.
Jack is played by Gideon Glick, who emerged into the New York scene most prominently in Spring Awakening. He sings “Giants in the Sky” with an assured voice and gives the character a unique eccentricity that makes Jack fresh and fun. His counterpart, in a way, is Little Red, played by Sarah Stiles dressed in modern red bicycle helmet and quilted sporting vest. She finds a kind of giddy delight in being pursued by the Wolf (Ivan Hernandez), which would be creepy if the Hernandez didn’t handle his wolf with such comic aplomb. Hernandez doing the usual double as Cinderella’s Prince and Cooper Grodin as Rapunzel’s Prince work together beautifully singing “Agony.” They have been dressed as variations of the rock singer “Prince,” another touch meant to be from the mind of the boy Narrator.
The Witch, played in the first act with beautiful originality by Donna Murphy and aided by her thicket inspired costume and makeup, loses something in the second act when she becomes beautiful again. In the second half the Witch has more significant singing to accomplish and Murphy seems to just blat out the loud music and fall off the sensitive music. Only here and there does the pure beauty of her voice shine through. This is too bad, for as a character, Murphy has done her work and gives a full performance.
Perhaps the most satisfying performance comes from Jessie Mueller as Cinderella who sings it perfectly and brings a wonderful intelligence and vulnerability to the role. What is so interesting about Jessie Mueller is that her performance here is so completely different than what she did in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and shows that this musical actress has a huge range and should become one of Broadway’s most interesting and diverse actresses.
The balance of the cast works together like a true ensemble, helping to pull together the director’s concept and the slightly unbalanced performances to make a production that, over all, is very winning. Seeing it in the outdoor environment of Central Park adds half of the magic and if you can win the online lottery or get in line by 5 AM for the free tickets, you will have a delightful evening of great theater that can only happen in New York.