*I wrote this review as a Facebook "note" and posted it sometimes in the night - but I'm proud of my work and think it deserves more eyes than a late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning post would garner, so here it is on my blog.
(I'm somewhat retired from criticism these days, but I thought I'd flex the old muscles a bit on this piece. I'm writing it more in the style of an essay meant for someone who's familiar with the show, as I'm doing it for fun and don't have the desire to recap the storyline here.)
There is a notion - perhaps old fashioned, but it's still around - that drama is all about the day where something out of the ordinary happens. It's never about the birthday party that goes off without a hitch, the courtship that runs smoothly, the friendship that sustains. More to the point, it's about how the out-of-the-ordinary affects those (often) ordinary people. Do they embrace the strange or run from it? Or ignore it entirely?
At its heart, INTO THE WOODS is about people who long for change, get it, and have to deal with its effects. They are not contented people, and, for many of them, they will never be content, always changing old wants out for new ones. There is a restlessness that drives the piece from the first urgent piano chords and Cinderella's plea, "I wish!" Yet for all of the danger and realism that the Delacorte's modern costumes and alfresco setting promises, and for the driving pace needed by a space that is unable to provide black-outs or closed curtains and so must rely on quick entrances and exits, there is no urgency in this production.
Part of the problem rests with the creative team's substitution of an imaginative boy (Jack Broderick) as the Narrator. While the young actor's line readings were lively as he told the story as a child playing with his toys, and his hand-of-God machinations in the actions of the characters through his manipulation of the dolls were nicely chilling in places, this gimmick (might as well call it what it is) somewhat robs the characters of motivation beyond their good/evil status. How can a little boy understand a long-married couple's longing for a child? How can he know the pride and fear in a mother's heart as her daughter grows older? Though some of these themes come to play more strongly in Act 2 (which I didn't see, as I attended an Act 1-only family matinee), their lack of "oomph" in Act 1 didn't set the stage for their post-intermission exploration.
But I may be confusing directorial intent with lack of character development here. The show's central couple is the Baker and his Wife, played by Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams, respectively. He is played as an offbeat and somewhat slow man (perhaps a reflection of the Homer Simpson doll the boy uses as his playtime stand-in?), she as a nice-enough, clever-enough woman whose massive stack of hair is the only remarkable thing about her. (I didn't get a look at the doll that represented her, but that sure sounds like Marge Simpson to me.) There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason as to why they are a couple, working as they do on such different wavelengths. And if I didn't hear the Narrator tell us how desperately they wanted a child, I wouldn't know it by their actions. They go about their hero's quest as though a voice from above were telling them what to do, not because of a strong passion of their own. Again, unless it was a conscious decision of the co-directors to have the Baker and Baker's Wife act like action figures, there should've been a directive to Mr. O'Hare and Ms. Adams that commanded, "You want a child that badly? Go FIGHT for it!"
Perhaps the most unexpectedly low-key performance of the night was given by Donna Murphy as the Witch. Of course it's best not to repeat note-for-note the showy turn of Bernadette Peters; if we wanted her, we'd listen to the CD and watch the DVD. However, I wasn't anticipating Ms. Murphy's choice of making the most fantastical and magical character of the show into one of the most naturalistic ones (tree branch hands aside). Her misery and outsider status were certainly there, but, devoid of the usual histrionics, she didn't work quite as well as the catalyst for the Baker and Wife's trip into the woods, which in turn acts as an agent of change in many of the others.
Two of the more effective actresses in this show were Sarah Stiles as Little Red Ridinghood and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella - perhaps because the wants of these characters are so clear, and in fact, made clearer through this re-staging. Little Red, seen here as a tart teen in roller derby guise, hides her vulnerability and lack of adult emotional and worldly intelligence with her nonchalant-tough exterior. She thinks that because she attracts the attention of a sexy rocker wolf with an "American Idol"-style growl (Ivan Hernandez), she's old enough to handle him - but she isn't, and her "I Know Things Now" holds even more "innocence-lost" resonance. Cinderella's problem is not a lack of awareness of others but of herself; she wants to attend the King's Festival but has a hard time figuring out if her head's been turned by the Prince or by the experience itself. She is so used to negative attention from her step-family that positive attention is perhaps confused with love. Both actresses gave a little more and a little weirder than what is usually expected in their roles, to much success.
John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour's enormous three-tier set allowed for a wondrous, creepy and highly adaptive workspace for the actors. It was both a part of and apart from the real trees that surrounded it - though it required some high-level endurance on the part of the performers who must climb up and down a series of stairs to get to each playing space. The orchestra was as it should be - crisp and unobtrusive, enough so that it was only because I was sitting next to a musician that I made an attempt to figure out where they'd been stashed, as they weren't clearly visible (for the record: on the middle level, behind the scenery).
All in all, a lot of the unexpected happens in Act 1 of INTO THE WOODS - and even more so in Act 2. But with a production that seems to favor visuals over emotions, why should I care?
- Lauren Snyder