“Someone is on our side,” sing two disenchanted fairy-tale characters at the end of Into the Woods. “Someone else is not.” Such is the uncomforting world of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s brilliantly adult 1987 musical. And such is also likely to be the reaction, among Into the Woods’ many ardent fans, to the strange magic of the Public Theater’s heartbreaking, headstrong revival in Central Park.
It can be difficult to revisit a show one knows well without the baggage of hope and expectation. Into the Woods is lovely, dark and deep—but it has promises to keep. The Public’s outdoor staging, directed by England’s Timothy Sheader (with Liam Steel as codirector), doesn’t try to keep those promises so much as liberate them; rather than retracing the familiar route of Lapine’s original direction, it takes new paths. Some come to thorny ends; others reach fresh discoveries. The journey is not painless, but by the end I was firmly on this production’s side.
The musical’s two acts have starkly different attitudes. In Act I, Lapine and Sondheim weave traditional stories—of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and the beanstalk-climbing Jack—into a witty farcical basket, held together by the tale of a baker and his wife who seek to end a witch’s curse that has rendered them childless. But as the cast sings, “Wishes come true, not free”: In Act II, the characters’ happy endings unravel into a violent mess of retribution and recrimination, as a lady giant wronged by Jack wreaks havoc in search of justice. Into the Woods doesn’t just rewrite the morals of its stories; it examines the subjective and elective qualities of morality itself, with unsettling conclusions.
The rap on the 1987 production (as with Lapine and Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George) was that the first half was terrific and the second less satisfying. Sheader and Steel’s version turns that upside down. Performed in pointedly modern dress—Little Red’s hood is now a plastic helmet—this production emphasizes the musical’s shady elements from the start, and focuses on Into the Woods’ complex points about parents and children. (The narrator is now a young boy, played by Noah Radcliffe and Jack Broderick at alternate performances.)
This approach comes at a cost in Act I, which begins with an irksome voiceover. You miss the storybook clarity of Lapine’s staging—from the closer seats, at least, the opening scene is confusing—and some of the jokes no longer connect. But Act II comes through with a poignant force of feeling that I have never experienced in the show before. The point of the narratorial conceit becomes clearer, and the physical presence of the giant (rendered through Rachael Canning’s evocative puppetry and Glenn Close’s voice) not only provides superb spectacle but also makes the moral stakes less abstract.
Many of the human performances still seem to be evolving. Jumpy, defensive and seemingly ambivalent about even wanting a child, Denis O’Hare’s Baker is a far cry from the mensch played by Chip Zien in 1987, and his singing is often weak. Nevertheless, O’Hare’s angry gravity helps pull the show toward his story; it’s an inchoate performance, but an interesting one, and I hope to see how it’s developed later in the run. Amy Adams might have made a fine Cinderella (played appealingly instead by Jessie Mueller), but as the Baker’s Wife—a role that requires sharper self-definition—she tends to fade into the woodwork. Sequences with the kingdom’s royal family are overly stylized; Ivan Hernandez, strong as the lascivious Wolf, lacks charm as the philandering Prince.
Yet there are wonderful moments in this Woods as well. Sarah Stiles offers a hilariously original and aggressive take on Little Red; each line reading is like a little exploding cigar. Also impressive are Gideon Glick and Kristine Zbornik, as the sweetly vulnerable Jack and his exasperated mother, and the cleverly cast Zien as the Mysterious Man (now a beer-swilling drifter). Donna Murphy’s Witch, hobbled at first by twiggy crutches and a barklike mask, comes into her own once she’s transformed into a beauty; at the show’s dramatic climax, she brings down the park with a riveting “Last Midnight.”
The correct response to all of this might actually be ambivalence. Into the Woods isn’t and shouldn’t be easy; it’s great and imperfect—and well worth a trip. Quibble with the trees here if you wish, but the forest, all told, is beautiful.—Adam Feldman
Tickets are free (two per person) and may be picked up only on the day of performance after 1pm at the Delacorte Theater. A limited number of tickets are also distributed via online lottery; see website for details.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam