Theater review: Sondheim in the Park: ‘Into the Woods’

From left: Denis O’Hare, Noah Radcliffe and Donna Murphy star in “Into the Woods,” newly extended through Sept. 1. Tickets are free; visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org to learn more.

A hotly anticipated, highly imaginative vision of Stephen Sondheim’s dark fairy-tale musical casts a spell on theatergoers in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s 50th anniversary season of Shakespeare in the Park.

The concept is rekindled from director Timothy Sheader’s successful open-air staging in London in 2010. Here, a typically adult narrator is cast as a small child who runs away in the woods and uses his imagination to navigate unfamiliar physical — and emotional — terrain. This lens allows the show to take on more playful elements and integrate the appearance of dolls, puppets, umbrellas and inchoate costumes (the baker and his wife — Denis O’Hare and Amy Adams — wear traditional peasant garb; Cinderella — Jessie Mueller — is often in jeans and Chucks). A staggered tree-house set feels organic to both the lush park backdrop and the child narrator’s frame of reference. But daytime fantasies take on a darker edge once night falls, and the boy’s imagination runs away with him instead.

“Into the Woods” is a quick-moving mash-up of beloved story-time tropes. It evades a modern or particular opinion and draws broad strokes on classic themes of family, trust and innocence lost. It’s a sharp-tongued and sometimes salacious play as well, but it would be admittedly more gripping if it played more Grimm.

The actors are all exact for their parts, but not necessarily for the same show. Where some are weaker with acting or comedy, others have less vocal aplomb. The talent is all there, but branched; this production relies on your willingness to see the forest — er, woods — for the trees. Standouts include a spunky Little Red (Sarah Stiles) and one deliciously evil witch (Donna Murphy). Oh, and you might see Glenn Close in your Playbill — watch for one of the biggest guest “cameos” of the year.

The story
   
Familiar fairy-tale figures head into the woods to pursue their deepest desires: A baker and his wife want a child; a hag longs for youth and beauty; a cinder-sweep wants to go to the ball; a boy must sell his cow; and a girl in red visits her grandmother. But all of their ambitions tangle and collide in the woods, which flips everyone’s wishes on their heads. And then there’s a rather tall price to pay for characters getting what they used to believe they wanted.


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