Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"You've changed. You're daring. You're different in the woods."

Into the Woods was the musical that made me like rap music -- well, made me receptive to it -- and was also the musical that introduced me to Stephen Sondheim. I brought home the soundtrack from the library because it was a musical, and it was about fairy tales, and really, that in itself was enough.

I think I was 12. 13? There was an awful lot that I didn't pick up; I knew that it was different from Rodgers & Hammerstein, but if you'd asked me how, I'm not sure that I would have been able to say anything more than that it sounded completely different in terms of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Now I can think back to some of the more saccharine R&H numbers (Surrey With the Fringe On Top, anyone?) and Andrew Lloyd Webber's cloying Puccini imitations, and think, with horror, that were it not for Sondheim, musicals would have become intolerable.

This isn't to say that Sondheim can do no wrong. I think that Sweeney Todd is amazing; so well-crafted that I dare you to find a single word or note that's superfluous. But what makes Sondheim great is that he could set insecurity, annoyance, and ennui to music -- and that's probably also his greatest weakness. I remembered feeling, when I finally got to see the video of the original Broadway cast, that the second act was less tight than the first one; that the stories just get sort of mushed together. Getting thrown together by chance rather than by choice is part of the point, I know, but it felt sloppy, too.

I didn't know that Into the Woods was playing in London, let alone at an outdoor stage in a wooded grove in Regent's Park, until I went to the Sondheim prom, and people were talking about it; and lo, when I went got home most of the good seats were gone, but I scored one in the fourth row center section.

The set is quite elaborate: three levels of platforms stretching across the stage; each tall enough to stand on, and ladders and stairs running between them. Rapunzel's tower at the center, in the back. And trees all around. The costumes were rather Tim Burtonesque, but it worked. The Witch seemed to be midway through a transformation into a tree (which meant that she had creepily root-like figures), but midway, turned into Louise Brooks (with more of a mod-Victorian outfit than flapper look, though). She really did own the part, and I did not find myself making Peters comparisons (aside from being aware of slightly different rhythms in her opening number, and this only goes to show how many times I've listened to that track over the years).

I thought that the whole cast was outstanding, though. You need a strong Witch, and a strong Baker's Wife especially, and you'd better have an interesting Red Riding-Hood, if you're not going to just skate through. This production had each of those things, but I was equally aware of the chemistry between the Baker's Wife and the Baker, and the parallel (but not identical) sexual awakenings of Red and Jack, and how much this show is about the ways that parents and children can and do wound each other as much as it's about sex.

There's one innovation that this production does that works particularly well: the Narrator, traditionally played by a Bettelheimesque man in a suit, becomes a child, probably 10-12, who has run away from home, into the woods, with a sleeping bag, a lunchbox, and a small backpack of toys who become representations of the various figures. This adaptation is so effective that I wonder that no one has thought of it before. Or maybe they have?

In short, sure, it's not the razor-sharp libretto of Sweeney Todd, but with a strong cast, the stories echo each other, rather than merely repeating. And the setting, in which the story deepens and darkens as the sun drops down out of the horizon, really couldn't be improved. In the second act, dusk had fallen, but the whole sky was an eerily washed-out orange, and the trees were lit with blue lights, which made them appear to have an ashy-grey patina; and it was a perfect accompaniment for the darkness of what takes place. Just as the Baker and the Old Man begin to reconcile, the orange had faded away, and the lightest of rain showers (delicate as lace) fell for a few minutes, only to ease away in the very last song, and in time for the curtain call.

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