As reports came out of the cast members that this American version of Into the Woods was amounting, excitement among theater cognoscenti, and Sondheim aficionados in particular, rose to a feverish pitch: Donna Murphy as The Witch; Denis O'Hare as the Baker; Jessie Mueller as Cinderella; Gideon Glick as Jack; Johnny Newcomb in the ensemble. (Sorry, that last one was mostly exciting to those of us at the Boston Conservatory, of which Johnny is a recent grad. BoCo, represent!) And then, perhaps most exciting of all, came the announcement that Oscar-nominee Amy Adams would play the Baker's Wife. Suddenly, Into the Woods became the absolute must-see show of the summer.
The resulting show, however, was a pretty significant disappointment. I saw one of the previews, toward the end of the first week of performances, and at that point there was very little magic happening on stage. In fairness, there were still quite a few technical glitches in evidence, in particular with the sound system, the lighting cues, and vocal entrances during quite a few on the numbers, so I made allowances for the fact that the production probably needed some time to gel. But based on the critical response now that the show has officially opened, it would appear that, although the technical glitches may have cleared up, the main problems with the production itself remain: uneven casting and a decided lack of emotional power.
From where I sat (which was row P, considerably far away from the action), a huge part of the problem with respect to the show's emotional impact was the elaborate jungle gym of a set, designed by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour. The set comprises a visually impressive but somewhat imposing series of walkways, staircases, and balconies reaching 50 feet into the air. Directors Sheader and Steel spend so much time trying to utilize all the different playing areas that very little of this highly emotive show took place downstage center. Also, because of the breadth and height of the set, it often took a second or two to figure out where to focus, and the lighting and sound design didn't much help in this matter. In total, the production design had a distancing quality, which works against the very concept of the show.
The casting choices at the center of the show served to exacerbate this affective disconnect. The emotional core of Into the Woods should ideally come from the Baker and his Wife. However, Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams displayed very little chemistry, as if they barely knew each other. Their "It Takes Two" was all mechanical movement and forced conviviality. Of course, Adams is primarily a movie actress, but what works for the camera doesn't always play in a 1,900-seat amphitheater. Vocally she seemed to hold her own, despite sharping on some of her high notes, but she seemed to be constantly distracted throughout the show. (Perhaps it was the hideously exaggerated wig she was forced to wear in this production. Yeesh.)
As for O'Hare, it's beginning to seem as though he won that Tony for Take Me Out basically for playing himself; he really hasn't deviated much since from that mannered, quirky sprite that brought him so much acclaim. In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to cast Chip Zien, who originated the part of the Baker, as the Mysterious Man. Zien is laser sharp, with a radiating warmth that only serves to emphasize what was missing from O'Hare's performance.
As for the rest of the cast, the usually sensational Donna Murphy had at least three very noticeable lyric flubs, two in "Last Midnight" alone, but from other reports it would seem that Murphy gained her footing as previews progressed. Two major standouts were Sarah Stiles as Little Red Riding and Gideon Glick as Jack, both exhibiting strong voices, clear focus, and a wonderful sense of individual character. Ivan Hernandez is also strong as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, playing each role with clear choices and a firm sense of the inherent comedy. Jessie Mueller, who was such a knockout in last season's unfortunate On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, has a decidedly individual take on Cinderella, playing her with much more of an earthy, grounded countenance than others who've played the role.
Another factor in the overall emotional disconnect of the show may have come from the fact that the directors seemed more focused on being clever than in bringing out the richness of the characters. Admittedly there's some pretty fantastic stagecraft on display here. The way the creative staff handle Granny's bed in the scene with Little Red Riding Hood and the Wold is pretty frickin' cool. Jack's beanstalk magically appears through the use of a spiral staircase and a bunch of green umbrellas. And the manifestation of the giant is nothing less than a coup de theatre. It's funny, though, all the clever stagecraft in Peter and the Starcatcher doesn't seem to impede the audience connecting with the characters, but with Into the Woods, I walked away admiring the production elements while not being particularly moved.
And then there's what seems to have become obligatory in modern musicals: the framing device. The show starts with a young boy screaming at his parents and being sent to his room. The boy enters the stage fulminating, and eventually he starts to tell the story of the show, seemingly making it up by cobbling together stories he's heard before.
Two problems here: first, the moral that comes at the end of the show ("Careful the things you say. Children will listen.") is rather sophisticated, and is even stated from a presumably adult point of view. (Note the word "children" in the lyric.) This makes it unlikely that the boy would come up with this notion on his own. Also, there's quite a bit of sexual innuendo and outright lewdness in this staging of Into the Woods, and I don't recall being quite that salacious when I was ten. (I must say that when we discover the true identity of the boy at the end of the show, it makes for a really nice surprise. But it would have been even sweeter if the proceedings leading up to it were more emotionally charged.)
We've recently heard reports of a possible Broadway transfer for Into the Woods. Perhaps in redesigning the show to fit in a Broadway house, the production staff could minimize or eliminate the distancing factor of the set design. Perhaps they could also bring in James Lapine to do some table work with the cast and help them find the heart of the show. I have to wonder if Amy Adams would transfer with the show; most likely she has movie offers awaiting her. But if she didn't make the transfer, would anyone outside the theater community want to attend?