The naked eye can barely discern where the trees of Central Park landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead meet those of set designer John Lee Beatty in the Public Theater’s production of “Into the Woods,” the closing attraction of Shakespeare in the Park this year. “Into the Woods” in the woods is a canny idea, and Brit director Timothy Sheader builds his often willfully anachronistic production on intriguing if not always workable notions. It makes for an enjoyable evening of free theater, but the open question for the Public is whether the show has the legs to transfer indoors.
Sheader originally mounted “Into the Woods” in 2010 to extravagant praise at Regent’s Park Open Air Theater in London. Here, he and co-director/movement director Liam Steel are working with a virtually new design team and cast, and some of the elements that reportedly made the show a dazzling affair in Regent’s Park seem to have been lost in translation. Overall effect is strong but not transporting.
The director’s most significant update is to impose a modern-day framework on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fantastical fairy-tale musical. A preteen Narrator (impressively played at a press preview by young Noah Radcliffe, who alternates with Jack Broderick in the role) walks onstage in contempo garb and pulls some dolls and stuffed animals out of his backpack. He then starts to tell a story using his dolls as stand-ins for what will be the characters of the plot. The cast spills out and performs Sondheim’s masterful opening sequence, and we’re off.
Unfortunately, the Narrator is forced to take the show from the bright and cheery first act into the nightmarish second, in which he is violently killed off, although the story he’s making up continues without him. Some audience members will spend more time concentrating on the Narrator’s fate than on the rest of the story, a problem that proves typical of the production as a whole as Sheader’s devices too frequently distract from Sondheim and Lapine’s original text.
In particular, the modern-day costuming makes Little Red Ridinghood (Sarah Stiles) look as if she’s just come back from a punk-rock roller derby with a wolf tattoo on her arm; Jack’s Mother (Kristine Zbornik) wears a frowsy housecoat and pink bunny slippers, and sports a pink dustbuster. Other characters are outfitted and performed in a cartoonish manner, providing laughs, but often at the expense of the script.
Similarly, while the production has an array of interesting performances, the contempo touches sometimes limit their impact. Donna Murphy turns out to be a very good Witch, though you wouldn’t know it at intermission; until then, she is so obscured by her character’s pre-transformation costume, with gnarled limbs and an obliterating face mask, that her character seems a cackling cartoon. Amy Adams does well in the critical role of the Baker’s Wife, but why do they all but crush her features with a heavy wig that looks like something out of “Fiddler on the Roof”? Denis O’Hare (“Take Me Out”) doesn’t yet seem comfortable in his perf as the Baker, and comparisons with the originator of the role will be inevitable, as Chip Zien is right there onstage playing the Mysterious Man.
Jessie Mueller as Cinderella, Steele as Red Ridinghood and Gideon Glick as Jack turn in strong performances, as do Zbornik as Jack’s Mother, Ellen Harvey as Cinderella’s Stepmother, and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf. The three-story puppet that represents the Giant (voiced by Glenn Close), however, is more clumsy than terrifying. The band of 11 sounds especially good, albeit highly amplified, with Sondheim veteran Paul Gemignani leading Jonathan Tunick’s rich orchestrations.
Even when it’s not supportive of the material, the staging by Sheader and Steel is novel and dynamic. This “Into the Woods” serves as a good, if overlong, midsummer’s eve diversion in Central Park, but not necessarily in a Broadway theater.