A mute cow, believe it or not, is the life of the party at Broadway’s new “Into the Woods.” This revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical isn’t wholly dependent on its scene-stealing bovine for the new spring in its step, to be sure. But you could say that Chad Kimball’s nimble performance in this mute role — in the original, Milky White was played by a hunk of plastic on wheels — is emblematic of the way some minor tweaking has resulted in a major mood swing for this knotty musical.
With some splashy special effects, fleet choreography by John Carrafa and performers who bring piles of sass, wit and sparkle to their roles, this is a flashier and blessedly brisker presentation of Sondheim and Lapine’s crazy quilt of fairy tales for our unhappy-ever-after age. No, it doesn’t solve the problems of a show that still lacks cohesion and concision — and, on a deeper level, authentic emotional appeal. But in taking itself less seriously, the new production does render those flaws less deleterious, and it allows the gems in Sondheim’s score to glitter bewitchingly.
Since we’re on the subject of bewitching, let us praise the show’s toplined performer, Vanessa Williams, the most wickedly appealing witch it’s possible to imagine. When she’s transformed from gnarled crone into — well, Vanessa Williams! — toward the end of the first act, it’s as if all the men in the audience have been granted the wish they’ve been fervently wishing since the curtain went up. As stunning as she looks in her vaguely Grecian gown and cascading blond curls, Williams probably could vamp her way through the role and still succeed. But while she does have a few funny, hip-slinging diva moves in her repertoire (her contribution to the long opening prologue is recast almost as rap here), she also gives a finely sung, spunky performance as the overprotective guardian of Rapunzel.
A similar blend of humor, charisma and vocal polish is to be found in Laura Benanti’s Cinderella, the put-upon lass who, like virtually every character in the show, is deeply ambivalent about actually getting what she wishes for. An increasingly invaluable Broadway ingenue, Benanti brings a pleasing clarity to one of the score’s many songs of moral and emotional befuddlement, “On the Steps of the Palace.”
Her prancing prince is played by Gregg Edelman in one of the evening’s tastiest comic turns. Edelman revels in his character’s smarmy amour propre and blithe selfishness (the prince’s justification for his philandering, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” draws one of the evening’s biggest laughs), and his two duets with his fine fellow royal Christopher Sieber on “Agony” are among the evening’s highlights.
In the central roles of the Baker and his wife, whose efforts to undo the witch’s curse on their family tie all the fairy tales loosely together, Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O’Malley also perform with an appealingly light touch, etching their roles with bright comic strokes but bringing a fine, simple conviction to them nonetheless. Excellent contributions also come from a fresh-voiced Adam Wylie as Jack, of beanstalk fame, and an amusingly squawky Marylouise Burke as his exasperated mum; Molly Ephraim as a cranky Little Red Ridinghood; and of course Kimball, who manages to imbue Milky White with an almost human complexity of feeling, without benefit of even a single Sondheim lyric.
Indeed, in some ways it’s easier to forge an emotional connection with that mute cow than with his talkative human companions. As engaging as the evening’s performances are, they can’t overcome this musical’s chief drawback, which is that it never quite ceases to be a theatrical conceit.
It’s a clever one, certainly, and Sondheim and Lapine execute it with much wit and inventiveness (perhaps too much of the latter: the show’s other primary drawback is its overelaborate structure). But for all its dense explorations of human fallibility and vulnerability, the show lacks humanity — literally. Imbuing fairy tale characters with pop-up neuroses and powers of self-analysis doesn’t really render them human; it just makes them less archetypal. (Could designs with contemporary flair help? Susan Hilferty’s traditional costumes and Douglas W. Schmidt’s lush but standard storybook sets are handsome enough, but it would be nice to see this show’s visual aspects approached more adventurously.)
As a result, Lapine’s knotty dialogue and Sondheim’s brilliantly crafted songs fail to achieve the emotional power they strive for. The show’s often bluntly explicit musings on personal growth and social responsibility are essentially coming to us straight from the pens of the authors: rendered in cute theatrical calligraphy perhaps, but not filtered through recognizable experience, as in Sondheim’s other shows.
This becomes a serious drain on the proceedings in the less comic second act, when a marauding giant attacks the fairy tale kingdom and the characters begin getting picked off like horny teens in a slasher pic, to roughly equivalent emotional effect. This is despite the eerie effectiveness of the flickering shadow used to give a sense of the giant, and the vocal performance contributed by no less than Judi Dench.
“Into the Woods” is far more charming when it is taking a satirical approach to its archetypal characters, allowing its talented cast to dig into the loopy comic aspects of the material: When a big bad wolf is salivating over his lunch, when a prince is preening over his proud lack of integrity, when a harried mother cracks wise about her son’s fixation on a cow. The show’s intermittent silliness is, in the end, more memorable than its murky musings on the pains and perils of maturity.