Saturday, January 10, 2015

Review: Into The Woods

I will come out now as an unabashed Stephen Sondheim fan, which immediately aligns me in the anti-Andrew Lloyd Webber camp. As all loves, it is not absolute; I can walk away from Company or Follies (though individual songs still catch my ear, as "The Ladies Who Lunch"). Still, Sondheim at his acme is among the best tunesmiths this or any other country has put on the stage, Gilbert & Sullivan included. The best of his canon — the three foremost in my heart include A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Sunday In The Park With George, and Into The Woods — set an unequaled high water mark in American musical theater.

The Bernadette Peters-starring 1991 American Playhouse version of Into The Woods has remained my benchmark for that piece, so I had a high bar for the new version; and yet, with James Lapine, the book author, as the screenwriter, I needn't have worried. There are choices here that mark a concession to current tastes, most particularly Johnny Depp as the Wolf (and his costuming), but overall, the film stays true to the play, even though the limitations of film become more obvious in this work. Meryl Streep's Witch is vastly darker than Bernadette Peters' in the show's first run, which saps some irony from her introductory song.

Overall, the casting is good, and in places (as with the princes, Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine) inspired, though everywhere, the focus is on acting rather than singing. This is nowhere more visible (or audible) than in Cinderella, Anna Kendrick, whose vocal limitations at times are quite obvious yet forgivable (her nasal tones belie less-than-formal training). I found myself wanting more from Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), but couldn't tell, in the end, if it was her or the editing or direction. And there's the sense that both the sets and the CGI accumulated to so much visual distraction, in a way a stage play could never be. Still, if this is your introduction to Sondheim, they've done him proud. You'll still want to see the 1991 version, but this is a worthy adaptation.

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