To lift the spell, to sell the cow, to visit grandmother, to go to the festival: These are all good reasons for characters in this show to go--where else?--into the woods. But why have composer Stephen Sondheim and writer/director James Lapine decided to go back into the woods after 15 years? After seeing the revival of their hit musical at the Ahmanson prior to its Broadway return, the answer is still frustratingly unclear.
It's been 15 years since Sondheim's most clever, if not most substantive, musical debuted on the Great White Way, but it feels like a lot less (perhaps because it ran for so long). Into the Woods certainly hasn't had time to gain "forgotten classic" status?the impetus, one assumes, behind the recent Broadway revival of Follies and the early '90s remount of Company.
On the other hand, when this production was originally announced, it was implied that significant revisions were in the works. This would definitely have been a good excuse for a revival. After all, one of the main characters, Cinderella, has always seemed a bit of a cipher despite adequate stage time and lots of lovely songs. But, unfortunately, the "revisions" onstage at the Ahmanson amount to one additional song for the Witch and some unnecessary complications (two wolves in the "Hello, Little Girl" number?).
Another possible reason for the revisit might be that the producers felt they had to see someone else's interpretation of a great role, a la Tyne Daly as Mama Rose. One assumes in this revival that person would have to be the bewitching Vanessa Williams as the Witch. Well, Williams does a respectable job, more comfortable in the sassy second act when the witch regains her beauty than in the shticky, heavily made-up first, but it doesn't amount to a reinterpretation of the role by any means, at least not one that theatregoers will be clamoring to see.
So, why? We'll never get the answer. But it's nevertheless true that there are a few good reasons for, at least, audiences to make this journey again. First and foremost are some great turns: most enchantingly Kerry O'Malley as a more youthful, playful Baker's Wife--utterly beguiling in her scolding/encouraging rendition of "Maybe They're Magic," a number that failed to impress to this degree in the original. Then there's the hilariously deadpan Christopher Sieber as Rapunzel's shallow but staunch prince, and, filling in for Kate Reinders, Chad Kimball's scene-stealing take on a much-more-animated Milky-White, the cow who plays a surprisingly big role in these woodsy intrigues.
Distressingly, however, things that Lapine got right the first time around have apparently been forgotten. The biggest head-scratcher is the casting of children instead of teens in the roles of Jack and Little Red Ridinghood. The younger-looking performers may add an additional element of fear in the more harrowing second act as they face death under the feet of a revenging she-giant, but their takes on the blossoming-sexuality solos "Giants in the Sky" and "I Know Things Now" are muted because of the performers' youth and therefore miss the joke. Equally disappointing is the typically hilarious Marylouise Burke, who seems to be struggling to find her feet here--and to keep time--as Jack's Mother.
But what about that new number, "Our Little World," a Witch/Rapunzel duet in the first act that explores the comforting/stifling closeness of protective mothers and their daughters? It's good stuff simply because it fleshes out that twisted relationship. One only wishes more of these kinds of revisions had been made for this revival, whether in terms of bold new character interpretations or score/script additions and deletions. Sadly, in the real world, wishes don't always come true.
Milky White...Kate Reinders
Bakers Wife...Kerry O'Malley
Florinda...Tracy Nicole Chapman
Jack's Mother...MaryLouise Burke
Little Red Ridinghood...Molly Ephraim
Cindarella's Father...Dennis Kelly
Mysterious Man...John McMartin
Wolves...Greg Edelman, Christopher Seiber
Rapunzel's Prince?Christopher Seiber
Cindarella's Prince...Greg Adelman
Steward...Trent Armand Kendall