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Not Happily Ever After All - A Feminist Response to 'Into the Woods'

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Be careful what you wish for. That seems to be the message of the Public Theater's revival of Into the Woods, currently in performances at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. When it was first announced, this production sounded like a dream come true -- one of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's most entertaining musicals, starring the movie actress Amy Adams and Broadway leading lady Donna Murphy, staged outside, under the summer sky. What could be better? Unfortunately this revival, directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, who helmed the 2010 open air production in London, is a muddled and confusing show that seems to have gotten lost along the way to its goal, just like many of its characters.

First performed in 1987, Into the Woods features the characters of classic fairy tales, including but not limited to Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk," and works them all into one story framed around the new tale of The Baker and his Wife, who long for a child but are cursed with infertility by the witch who lives next door. While the Disney renditions of these familiar tales may have simple endings of happily ever after, the original works by the Brothers Grimm were much darker, and so is Into the Woods. Sondheim has never been known for writing shows featuring simple, happy endings and with Into the Woods, he delves into the darker undertones of these bedtime stories such as the characters' motivations and longings and what happens to them after "happily ever after."

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A new technique is introduced in this production, which, instead of being narrated by an old man, is told by a little boy (a fine Noah Radcliffe) who ran away from home after arguing with his widowed father and begins telling the story to his toys. Much potential lies in exploring the darker aspects of Into the Woods, but its meaning and subtext (and trust me, there is plenty) are lost in the busy, frantic direction of this show. The woods can symbolize so much -- sexual awakening, dark forces, knowledge and power, just to name a few -- but this production never seems to determine what the beautiful symbolism of Sondheim and Lapine's work is actually representing. It does, however, highlight the incredibly strong, self-sufficient and complex women Sondheim and Lapine created for this musical.

Staged on a tiered, tree-house like set designed by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour, the musical has so much action happening at once that it's difficult to know where to look or who to watch. The movement -- I hesitate to call it choreography -- is awkward and uninspired. And the costumes, by Emily Rebholzm, greatly detract from the whimsical charm of watching fairy-tale characters come to life. Instead of dressing the cast in clothes appropriate to their old-fashioned origins, Rebholzm has gone for something along the lines of an inexplicable goth/punk/hipster fusion. Little Red Riding Hood is a skater girl (or is it gurl?), the Princes appear to be die-hard Elvis fans, and Cinderella's stepmother resembles a dominatrix. Only the Baker and his Wife seem to wear classic styles, but the Wife is stuck with an unfortunately large wig that resembles a squirrel napping on her head. Rather than bringing a new level of modernization to the show, the modern costume choices distract from the fairy-tale magic Into the Woods can inspire.

Some of that magic is still apparent in this show, especially in the performances of Donna Murphy as the Witch and Amy Adams as the Baker's Wife. The latter, in her New York stage debut, gives an impressive and self-assured performance. As a feminist, watching Adams was especially rewarding and I found myself muttering, "Yes!" under my breath once or twice. Practical and resourceful, she refuses to stay at home while her husband ventures into the woods on a quest to break a curse he says is on his house, but that she says is on their house. Her second act solo, "Moments in the Woods," when she acknowledges the responsibility and sacrifice, as well as the bittersweet joy, that marriage and family can bring her, is excellent and Adams brings a sweet maturity to her performance.

When the Baker says of her, "My wife was the one who really helped. I depended on her for everything," I thought "Finally, he gets it!" Unfortunately, Denis O'Hare is not nearly as well-cast as the Baker. He gives a wispy, self-affected performance and he never registers fully as a character rather than a plot device. He only pales next to Adams, and when the two duet his voice sounds weak and off-key. I found myself wondering how they were married when they clearly differed in so many ways.

Thankfully, the other romantic pairings in the show are much more entertaining. As the two princes, Ivan Hernandez and Cooper Grodin are hilarious; their duet of "Agony" emphasizes their blissfully ignorant narcissism and sense of entitlement, and the overdramatic poses they strike as they enter and leave the stage only highlight their self-conscious dramatics. Cinderella, played by Jessie Mueller, is given such a strong and textured performance that one knows she is not meant to end up with this kind-hearted buffoon of a prince. Mueller shines in the role, making her confusion and conflict over marrying a prince relatable, especially in the song, "On the Steps of the Palace." She has one of the best young voices on Broadway and is equally impressive whether singing a sad lament or a humorous inner monologue. When she demonstrates her inner strength and independence during the Act Two conflict, it is rewarding to see her character's development put into play and for her to reach a satisfying decision completely on her own.

As Little Red Riding Hood, Sarah Stiles is not nearly as well cast. Her voice is shrill and her exaggerated mannerisms are not cute at all, which I think is what they were intended to be. (I also found the gag of her eating all the time to be tiresome; when will slender women overeating stop being considered endearing by our culture?) Hernandez also plays the Wolf who pursues Red Riding Hood and, giving a sexually charged performance complete with pelvic thrusts, is impressive, but the staging of Red Riding Hood being eaten was much too over the top. We know it's an allegory for a sexual awakening. We didn't need it to look like forceful sex.

The supporting cast is also mixed in its strength. Gideon Glick plays Jack as a soft-spoken, fanciful boy and his rendition of "Giants in the Sky" is lovely. Kristine Zbornik portrays his mother, a discontented shrew, and her voice is not at all melodic. Chip Zien, the Baker from the original Broadway production, is excellent as the Mysterious Man. He is clearly comfortable with the material and having a great time onstage.

One of the most fascinating aspects of fairy tales, to me, has been the horrors that women go through in order to obtain their "happily ever after," which typically involves a prince coming to save, and eventually, marry them. Into the Woods relates some of those horrors, such as Cinderella's stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, but it depicts them in a light-hearted, humorous way which was even more disturbing to me. However, one aspect of this production that was truly frightening to me was that of being a parent.

Motherhood is one of the most poignant, and sad, themes of Into the Woods, and, as the Witch, Donna Murphy gives a heartbreakingly resonant performance of a woman who longs to be a mother but despite her best intentions, makes a mess of it. (I'm sure many audience members could relate.) Her obsession with her adopted daughter Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) and grief over losing her, is truly moving to witness. And Murphy, one of the best living interpreters of Sondheim's music, excels whenever her character sings. The famed song "Last Midnight" begins as an anthem of eerie magic and soon progresses to a culmination of rage and fury at humanity. And her rendition of "Children Will Listen," a soothing but warning song of the terror of growing up and frightening power of parenthood, is a haunting melody that will linger long after one leaves the woods.