If you've been to Quizno's this month, you've probably seen the posters outside the Disney Municipal Theatre Center for their little production of "Into the Woods" they're doing. Or better yet, you've probably heard about it from your neighbors. As the city's foremost independent journalist (freelance seemed too dependent) I'm here to tell you that it's a really fun show, the actors are having a good time, and it's probably good for your kids.
Some bigshot musicmaker from Broadway city let Disney do some adjustments of his award-winning musical. Here's the deal: It's a story of four fairy tales--Cinderella, Jack and the beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and one new one about a Baker and his wife--that intersect as each person seeks after their wishes. Cinderella wants to go to the ball, Jack and his mother wish for prosperity, Little Red just wants bread to bring her granny, and the Baker and his wife want a child. The result is a fast-paced, funny, and surprisingly emotional and complex story about wishes, what it takes to get them, and whether or not getting what you want actually makes you happy.
Most of you probably know that it's a really good musical. Though I am a respectable independent journalist, I will admit that I have friends who like "Broadway" and "musical theater" and "belting" and "booking", and they tell me "Into the Woods" is the most accessible musical by the incredible rhymer and morally elusive composer Stephen Sondheim, whose musicals "Sweeney Todd", "Company", "A Little Night Music" and many others challenge the happily-ever-after attitude of most musicals with biting wit and complex music. A couple of my Broadway friends also said his work is 'boring' or 'too complicated for me'. I guess I should say they 'were' my friends before I deactivated my myspace in disgust.
I agree with the people who like Sondheim, and "Into the Woods" is one of his best. Throughout the Disney Center's production, I was reminded how smart and beautiful it really is. It takes some getting used to in style, especially if you don't know musicals very much, but the performances and orchestration here are lush and bring the score to life for a contemporary audience. (Also, the script by James Lapine is reduced a little bit but generally remains unmarred.) Sitting down for the first number, a fourteen-minute introduction to the varying plots that culminates in all of the characters heading off into the woods, was completely exhilarating and nearly-perfectly-executed. Disney's sets are ominous and pretty, the costumes are vivid and evocative, and the overall effect is a little dark but pretty much spot-on.
But let's be honest, this is a musical, so the real concern here is not whether the themes are told properly or whether or not the material has inherent value. What really matters is who got cast as the leads. So is Disney's cast the best ever? Did the coolest, most talented, most deserving
James Corden and Emily Blunt play the Baker and the Baker's Wife, whose story becomes central to the musical. As the hesitant, stubborn, idiosyncratic Baker, James Corden's turn is comic without clowning, charming without posturing, and touching without being all that deep. He nicely fits this generation's ideal version of the good husband: kinda chubby, sensitive, with a beard. Next to him, Emily Blunt plays the Baker's Wife, a legendary role who wants to be an equal part in her marriage, but who also sees clearly that if she is going to get what she want, she might have to act selfishly. To be effective, the Baker's Wife needs to be both likable and cunning, and Emily Blunt pulls it off nicely. Whether anyone could have been that unabashedly beautiful in feudal fairy-tale land begs verisimilitude, but this is a musical. Could other actresses have done it better? Perhaps. But in a sense Blunt is the perfect choice for this current production. She is just famous enough for us to recognize her and just anonymous enough for us to want to see more of her.
Plenty of girls are gonna be ticked about Anna Kendrick, who plays the to-be-princess Cinderella. Kendrick's voice is mediocre, her look is awkward, and since she never seems to feel anything besides confusion it's difficult to care about her, or to connect with her eventual journey. People including my brother disagree with me about her, and that's fine, I suppose, but she didn't really do it for me. But like Blunt to a much further extent, Kendrick is Hollywood's current darling, and that's how these things work. I remember watching "To Have and Have Not" starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. At the end of the film the gorgeous Bacall leans against a piano and begins to sing. My mother and I, watching the film, burst into unquenchable laughter, hearing this beautiful woman singing in a voice that sounded like the Gettysburg address translated into cow-speak. De gustibus non est disputandum.
The rest of the cast does nicely. Meryl Streep is one of the great divas we cheer for and gives the iconic Witch basically everything she needs. I do wonder, however, if we might cheer too much for the fact that she gets to wear that cool dress and crazy blue hair than we do for her performance of "Children Will Listen". The Princes, played by Chris Pine and handsome blonde doofus, were just great for what we should expect from the Disney Municipal Theater Center--community theater with pretty people.
Johnny Depp had to be in it, because he's neighbors with the director and, I mean, he would feel weird. He's always playing some funny role in the musicals here and honestly, we'd be sad not to see him. It's a matter of comfort rather than artistic boldness that he be a part of it, and isn't that just fine? Jack and Little Red are great kids with some smart acting choices. I haven't mentioned their singing voices, mostly because the sound guy at the Center decided to autotune and adjust a lot of it. So they all sound a little bit like singing robots who like putting unnecessary scoops on melodies that would be fine without them. But it didn't bother me all that much. "It Takes Two", "The Last Midnight", "Moments in the Woods", "Steps of the Palace", and "No One Is Alone" are musical standouts despite.
In the end, no matter qualms about casting or slight changes to the script, it's wonderful to see a great piece of theater transferred to a place where it can be seen by lots of people and given to a new generation.
To be honest, I've always dreamed of seeing a perfect version of "Into the Woods", one that has me guffawing in laughter, sighing in love, and crying like a fool as the girl who came with me holds my arm in confusion at my weirdness. But I haven't seen it yet, and I might never. The really fantastic thing about musicals is that they come back, again and again, and like Passion plays or the pageants of old, they find new casts.
The stage will sometimes be manned by strangers and you will enjoy yourself and walk away with your belly full and your mind distracted. If so, they have done their job. You've had fun. Everybody's happy.
At other times those roles in the pageant might be filled by people who matter to you: the baker you know from town, that witch from next door who's been like a second grandmother to you, your nephew as Jack and your niece as little red. Or someone you don't know but who you've heard is a really good person, and whose virtues become a part of the character they play. Watching these intimate personages on stage, the story becomes different. Being in that theater at that time, you are a part of a bigger story, the story of our tribe, all wishing and wanting and blundering through the woods. When you walk out of that one, you might just know what it means that no one is alone. You might be careful the things you say. You might listen and learn.
Whether or not something like that happens at Disney Municipal Theater Center's production, we'll keep putting it on. We can all keep going and watching people singing and acting and stuff. That's a pretty good place to start.