Sunday, January 4, 2015

Into The Woods

Sondheim’s fairy tale musical amuses

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Magnussen, Tracy Ullman

                  Review by James Colt Harrison

The Broadway musical Into The Woods entertained audiences from it’s beginning presentation at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986 to it’s New York run from November 5, 1987 at the Martin Beck Theatre until it closed on September 3, 1989. Stage great Bernadette Peters played the part of The Witch for the first five months and then was replaced by various actresses such as Phylicia Rashad and Nancy Dussault. The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won for Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim), Best Book (James Lapine), Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason), and Drama Desk Awards went to Sondheim for Outstanding Music & Lyrics, James Lapine again for Outstanding Book of a Musical, Joanna Gleason (the baker’s wife) for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, and Robert Westenberg (Prince) for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.

With such a rich history behind the show, the Disney Studios planned to make the play into a sparkling musical for the screen. They achieved that and more. By casting film favorites in the various roles, they created a new interest in the fairy tales that have gone askew. Who better than Disney, famous for classic fairy tales such as the hapless Cinderella and Snow White, could make a smashing new version of well-known stories?

Into The Woods is a happy collision of several well-loved characters from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstock,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel.” With a liberal sprinkling of The Brother’s Grimm, the film intertwines the famous characters with a running plot about a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wanting to start a family. The Witch, played hilariously by Meryl Streep, puts a curse on them. The childless couple must then embark on a search to find oddball objects (ie: a white cow) in order to break the spell.

During their quest to find the special objects, they run into several famous fairy tale characters who sing and trill along with the award-winning Sondheim score. Beautiful Mackenzie Mauzy plays Rapunzel and seems to throw her hair off her tower room at the drop of a hat. Mostly her Prince (handsome Billy Magnussen) catches it. But a twist occurs during one of her “hair pitches” to hilarious results.

Johnny Depp comes in for a questionable cameo as The Wolf with edgy sexual undertones in his encounter with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). Although Depp creates another one of his memorable characters, this one seems inappropriate, yet funny, in his repartee with Ms. Hood.

Meryl Streep is the main attraction in the film. She plays The Witch with gusto, spunk, and terrific humor. She steals every scene out from under all the other actors. And, Ms. Streep can sing. Barely recognizable in her “hag” make-up, she turns into a fairy princess and looks absolutely beautiful in costumes by Colleen Atwood. This is Streep’s first outing in a musical since Mamma Mia in 2008. That film is the highest grossing musical of all time, scooping up more than a half-billiion (with a capital B) dollars. It was certainly Streep’s biggest film. Also in that film was Christine Baranski, who appears in Woods as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. Baranski is a top notch actress who can do comedy equally as well as drama (see TV’s The Good Wife). As the Stepmother, she plays her in high camp and is amusingly over the top.

We can’t say we left the heater whisltingor humming any particular tune. It’s the show as a whole that is so enjoyable, but not one song has become a stand-out hit. Sondheim did write two new songs for the film, with only one making it into the final picture. The other song,written for Streep, wil appear in the DVD release later in the year.

Dashing and handsome Chris Pine, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s theatre program, plays the very funny Prince to Cinderella. One of the best and most hilarious scenes in the film is his duet with the other Prince (Billy Magnussen), Rapunzel’s heart-throb. Shot at a waterfall stream, the two ham it up as they get drenched.

A fetching Anna Kendrick plays the mistreated Cinderella but she manages to sing “A Very Nice Prince” and “On The Steps Of The Palace” with great finesse and style. Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada and a Golden Globe winner as Best Supporting actress) as the baker’s wife adds class to the film. Her role was played on the London stage by Imelda Staunton, who also won an award.

Into the Woods is the best and most enjoyable musical of the season.

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