Musical numbers: “Opening: Into the Woods,” “Cinderella at the Grave,” “Hello , Little Girl,” “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” “Maybe They’re Magic,” “Baker’s Reprise,” “I Know Things Now,” “A Very Nice Prince,” “First Midnight,” “Giants in the Sky,” “Agony,” “It Takes Two,” “Second Midnight,” “Stay With Me,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Finale — Act One,” “Opening: So Happy,” “Witch’s Lament ,” “Any Moment,” “Moments in the Woods,” “Your Fault,” “Last Midnight,” “No More ,” “No One Is Alone,” “Finale — Act Two.”
We’re an hour into the new Donmar Warehouse production of “Into the Woods,” the alternately grim and poignant Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine inversion of the Brothers Grimm (and others), before John Crowley’s chamber production begins to find its footing. The scene reveals the childless Baker (Nick Holder) and his determined, diminutive wife (Sophie Thompson) embarked upon the tasks set out for them by a gnarled witch (Clare Burt) when the couple are thrown back suddenly on one another’s company. Realizing a mutual need that extends way beyond pragmatism, the pair sing Sondheim’s particularly delightful “It Takes Two,” and as their hearts open up, so does that of a staging that at other times looks lost in an undercast, surprisingly prosaically designed (by Bob Crowley, John’s older brother) thicket of its own.
It helps, too, that Holder particularly — but also the breathy, wide-eyed Thompson — can sing a score that gains in shading and shape every time one hears it. Elsewhere, and notwithstanding Mark Warman’s artful reorchestrations (of the Jonathan Tunick originals) for an excellent nine-piece band, this may be the least musically accomplished, and also the least revelatory, of the Donmar’s three forays into Sondheim (“Assassins” and “Company” were the others).
On its own terms, the evening offers up a rueful study in a splintered society that keeps one foot cheekily placed in the pantomime camp (note this production’s Milky White, the cow). But anyone expecting the shock of discovery that accompanied Adrian Lester’s open-faced Bobby in “Company” will encounter instead a hard-working but disconcertingly collegiate staging that plunges an audience far less broodingly into the forest of human feeling and desire than the same director’s “How I Learned to Drive” at this theater earlier in the year.
Certainly, those put off by the persistent black comedy of Richard Jones’ often sick — and also brilliantly acted and sung (by Imelda Staunton and Julia McKenzie,chiefly) — London premiere of “Woods” in 1990 may appreciate Crowley’s less barbed attack on material that contains more than enough thorns of its own. Lapine’s book doesn’t stint on the blood and carnage that greet a community of fairy tale characters forced to confront their own solitude — and enough corpses, and parents severed from children, to rival “Hamlet” — before realizing, in the musical’s aching penultimate number, that “No One Is Alone.”
That song, in the wrong hands, can come across as so much unearned sentimentality, and it’s to Crowley and co-director (and choreographer) Jonathan Butterell’s credit that it emerges here as an affirmation of the newfound society of sorts that represents a clearing in the woods.
The staging in general grows in confidence, following an opening number that will probably only confuse newcomers to the show. (For one thing, Bob Crowley’s set — a row of firs topped in the second act by an enormous pair of glasses — doesn’t establish the characters’ separate residences at the start.)
What tends to get shorter shrift throughout is the sheer fun of a narrative that has its own high time revisiting characters we think we know, among whom only Sheridan Smith’s tartly knowing (and distinctly northern English) Red Riding Hood develops much audience rapport.
It’s characteristic of what’s missing that a quavery Sheila Reid, playing the impish mother to Christopher Pizzey’s rather lumpen Jack, misses most of her comic targets, while Damian Lewis — doubling as the Wolf and then Cinderella’s Prince — doesn’t come naturally by the vocal attack, and innate comedy, needed for the Princes’ delicious duet, “Agony.” As for Frank Middlemass as the sacrificial narrator, suffice it to say that this venerable performer on this occasion is so off form that he never quite seems to be in the show.
Always a problematic role, since it never seems to be quite the star part that it has been intended as, the Witch here falls to a game Clare Burt, who simply doesn’t have the authority or panache for a personality-driven role — hence its aptness for McKenzie and Bernadette Peters — steeped in transformations, both literal and metaphoric. While she works up a vibrato after a fashion on “Last Midnight,” the show’s principal singer would seem to be Holder, whose stooped, squat Baker becomes by default the production’s affective and aural centerpiece. Thompson, for her part, puts an interestingly desperate spin on the Baker’s barren wife, bleating to Cinderella (Jenna Russell), “I need that shoe to have a child.”
Later, it falls to the same character to muse, “If life were only moments, then you’d never know you’d had one.” Perhaps that same sentiment might be applied to a production that does raise the requisite lump in the throat at the end, even as it elsewhere marks time. (And, like many London musicals that open after insufficient previews, “Into the Woods” here may gain with repeated playing-in.) But for now, this 1987 parable of maturation looks as if it has only partly matured, as if the staging’s own moments were embarked on an as-yet-unrealized journey to become a whole.