Into the Woods

Donna Murphy, Amy Adams in Sondheim’s classic for Shakespeare in the Park

There’s something about sitting in an open-air theater in Central Park in August at dusk that makes you forget the various incandescent, putrid puddles encountered on the city streets in the months prior. Then James Earl Jones’ voice comes over the loudspeaker to dedicate the performance to Nora Ephron and forbid you from taking photography of any kind, and once again, you’re a smug champion of New York.

Those who first fell in love with the city for its theater—perhaps via a VHS cassette of Broadway’s Into the Woods starring Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason—owe it to themselves to see the Public Theater’s version of the Sondheim crowd-pleaser before its extended run ends next Saturday. The story’s a mash-up of various classic fairytales, restored to their original grimness but also reimagined so that you see what happens after the happy ending.

When the plan to stage the musical at the Delacorte was first announced, it was the shot heard ‘round the esoteric theater blog world, which was soon abuzz with breathless speculation about whether Meryl Streep would play the Witch. In the end, it was two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy who, like so many hungry high school drama kids before her, would take a turn rapping about rutabaga.

Murphy’s stage entrance was met with applause and a few cries Wednesday afternoon. It was a special matinée for children, complete with face-painting, audience members in costumes, and—an affront to anyone who’s ever been turned away by René, the egg-like man tasked with managing the fragile hopefuls of the standby line—so many open seats that viewers were asked to move toward the stage. For a ticket or two to a regular evening performance, you might want to arrive at 5:30 AM.

The opening number is delightfully complex and wide-ranging enough to make the front row too close a vantage point, though it does afford a great view of the actors’ costumes, which possess a degree of Marc Jacobs-style camp. Cinderella achieves her usual faux-ugliness by way of granny-chic hipster glasses and shopworn plaid, which she trades in for a gown and golden lace-up booties. Her prince wears floral brocade, and Florinda—or is it Lucinda?—has even put a bird on it, it being her overly teased up-do. Jack’s mother eventually takes more of a Versace/ladies who lunch in Brighton Beach direction with fur and a martini glass. This quirkiness carries over to many of the performances, which bear director Timothy Sheader’s determination to distance the production from the original.

If you could never get behind the original production’s whiny Little Red Riding Hood as a girl who deserved to live, this one (Sarah Stiles) might wear you down with devilish chuckles until you’re brimming with love. She seems to be a more consenting party regarding relations with the lecherous wolf, while her granny, who shouts, “This evil must be destroyed!” with a Romney-loving twang, has become less forgiving.

Another noticeable difference is that the narrator is played by an Avengers backpack-clad boy who dreams up the story—one of wishes and regrets that stars his late mother, we realize—after a fight with his father. The device emphasizes the extent to which the show is about raising children. Throughout, the kiddies struggle for independence (they “can only grow from something you love to something you lose”), only to miss their parents desperately once they are gone. What remains, though, are the things their mothers and fathers have taught and the stories they’ve told. Sondheim, who never had children, has been criticized for his intellectual rigidity, but the tears in the theater as the Witch pleads, “Stay a child while you can be a child” would suggest otherwise.

When you aren’t crying, you will be smiling and happily forgiving whatever parts are a tad overdone. With the exceptions of an understated Amy Adams, who plays the Baker’s Wife but makes you wish she were Cinderella instead, and Denis O’Hare, who plays the hapless Baker and makes you wish he were no part at all, much of the performance seems exaggerated for mass appeal. If you hadn’t already ascertained that Cinderella’s prince, who goes on to agree he’s “everything maidens could wish for,” is trendy and vainglorious, there he is sipping Zico coconut water from a straw. Of course, even though it predated the social rise of this particular health beverage, maybe the original was overdone too, and you simply remember it as perfect but know things now that you hadn’t thought to explore