One could report details about the outdoor production of Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, but the most important thing to say about this rendering of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical based on interweaving Grimm fairy tales (and one of the authors’ own invention) is that it’s as lovely a rendering of the show as you’re likely to see anywhere, ever. The Public Theater’s press material wants to strongly emphasize that this is not a replication of the outdoor production that played at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London two summers ago, yet a contractual note says that the Delacorte production is “based on” it. Having seen the video of the Regents’s staging, I think that neither is quite the truth. It’s actually kind of a continuation, in the sense that the Regent’s original directors, Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, have continued to experiment with casting, shaking up the archetypes a bit (but only a bit; while there’s some bracingly fresh thinking involved in all this, there’s no distorting the tone or the authenticity of the authors’ voices) and allowing their muse to adapt to a different outdoor theatre—necessitating a revised design (John Lee Beatty working a variation on his predecessor Soutra Gilmour’s original)—and a different talent pool of actors. For example, in the London production, Little Red—delivered now by an adult actress playing a child—was played by heavyset comic actress Beverly Rudd (think in terms of a female James Corden). Rather than expecting their US actress to fit that physical mode, they’ve cast Sarah Stiles, a compact, sassy actress with the edge of a streetwise juvenile delinquent.
This is more than stunt casting; with all the fairy tale characters played by adults (albeit at times young adults), there’s always a contrast with the Narrator…who, in this version, is a child; a young boy (played alternately by Jack Broderick and Noah Radcliffe) who has run away from home after a family argument. It’s perhaps the boldest move of the production and the biggest departure from traditional stagings, but it works beautifully to further particularize the show’s themes of parenting, and the legacy each generation leaves to the next.
In ways I won’t spoil here, this device leads to other staging inventions that are a blissful reminder of how much more impressive it is in a theatrical environment to create a suggestive “effect” in the most primitive, non-tech way that engages the audience’s imagination—and to some degree active collaboration—in filling out imagery; than to spend a buzillion dollars on projections and magic tricks that literalize everything and anesthetize not only the mind, but the soul. (I’m not pointing fingers or naming names—*cough*derman, *ch*ost—I’m just sayin’.) In particular, there’s more palpable awe and delight in the audience’s reaction to the appearance of The Giant’s Wife (a brilliant job of multi-component/multi-operator puppetry) than in any conglomeration of whizz-buzz-flash-boom mechanical bells and whistles I’ve ever seen.
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