Sondheim's 'Into the Woods' revived

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 22, 2002 at 1:27 PM
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NEW YORK, May 22 (UPI) -- A reworked version of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" has been revived on Broadway and garnered 10 Tony Award nominations including best revival of a musical.

Since the show has only one competitor in the musical revival category, "Oklahoma!," the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic also in a revised version, the winner to be announced June 2 seems pretty much a toss-up. "Oklahoma!" won a total of seven nominations.

This "Into the Woods" is essentially the same show with multigenerational appeal that debuted on Broadway in 1987, directed then as it is now by Sondheim collaborator James Lapine.

A song, "Our Little World," written for a 1990 London production of the work, has been retained and the role of the narrator, currently played by John McMartin, has been enlarged. And there is more dancing to new choreography provided by John Carrafa, who is also represented on Broadway by his choreography for "Urinetown."

The musical's book, written by Lapine, interlaces the Grimm Brother's fairytales about Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack the Giant Killer with an original Lapine story of a childless baker and his wife who have sought the aid of a witch in their efforts to conceive. The witch dispatches them on a treasure hunt that scrambles the fairy tales.

Act 1 end happily enough, and it is this act that has been licensed -- without Act 2 -- to elementary schools across the nation for innumerable performances by kiddie casts. Thus "Into the Woods" is Sondheim's most performed work, even played more often by both amateur and professional groups than "Sweeney Todd," which has entered the opera repertory.

Act 2 is grimmer than Grimm, described by Sondheim as "about transgression by people who in their own little selfish ways cause a holocaust." The giant widow of Jack's slain giant comes to shadowy life to seek revenge. She leaves in her lumbering wake a trail of death and destruction that is confusing and not a little distasteful. Her voice (recorded) is that of Judi Dench.

If you didn't like "Into the Woods" 15 years ago, you are not likely to find this three-hour revival, even though it is more opulent than the original, any more palatable or less tedious. All children seem to love it, but they are not likely to sense the implications of a frightening trip into the woods to experience betrayal and disillusion that are painfully recognizable to most adults.

Sondheim's score is a bit on the tiddly side, especially the title song which opens the show, but there are occasional depths of feeling that reflect the woeful underside of the fairytale material the composer is dealing with. Jonathan Tunick's masterful orchestral arrangements do much to enrich the composer's melodies.

Conductor Paul Gemignani also brings out the best in music that rarely rises to the level of Sondheim's finest work, with the exception of the show's lovely admonitory song, "Children Will Listen," that echoes Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific."

Laura Benanti and Gregg Edelman, a self-possessed Cinderella and her philandering prince, are delightfully ironic, and Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley, as the baker and his wife, are touching in their goodness and simplicity. Other top performances are being given by Melissa Dye as Rapunzel, Adam Wylie as Jack of beanstalk fame and Marylouise Burke as his carping mother, and Molly Ephraim as a Little Red Riding Hood who adds a wolf fur coat to her wardrobe.

John McMartin brings years of experience in top Broadway roles to the narrator and his performance both outside and inside the tangled plot is magisterial. Vanessa Williams makes a gorgeous and delightfully wicked witch who switches from an ugly old crone to a radiant Miss America beauty in a red gown before the audience's eyes. And she can sing, too!

But all this top talent is upstaged -- by a cow named Milky-White that is Jack's pet.

Beneath Milky-White's rubbery cow costume is a wonderful actor, Chad Kimball, who must crouch all evening on hand stilts to create a believable four-legged bovine. He also must operate the head, the blinking eyes, and the cud-chewing mouth, switch the tail, and even dance.

Making Milky-White a real, emotionally-charged character is a spectacular accomplishment on Kimball's part, quite superior to the 1987 production cow that actors moved around the stage as though they were carrying a suitcase. Kimball, 25 and fresh from graduation at the Boston Conservatory, was just a stand-in for the show's out-of-town run in Los Angeles when he was offered the cow role and the trip to Broadway.

Douglas W. Schmidt's dazzling scenery and Susan Hilferty's Crayola-colored costumes create the magic look of a children's pop-up storybook, and Brian MacDevitt's lighting equally slight-of-hand.

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