Saturday, April 25, 2015

INTO THE WOODS: An only so-so theater piece becomes a great American musical via Marshall, Lapine, a terrific cast and those Sondheim songs

When I first saw Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in its Broadway debut, it seemed more a mere exercise for this great American composer than anything else -- with music that often reminded me of those Czerny books I studied from during my early piano lessons. Viewing other incarnations of the show over the years produced a similar result -- until, this past Christmas holiday season, when I saw the movie version in a local theater and was so blown away by its success that I have just finished viewing it again on Blu-ray -- this time with the English subtitles turned on so that I needn't miss a single savvy and savory rhyme from our modern master of the musical form.

Produced by the Disney behemoth -- early word of which, I suspect, made many of us imagine the worst: How wrong we were! -- the movie manages to bring to the fore everything best about the show, while tamping down what was worst. It's not perfect -- one of the latter scenes has poor Simon Russell Beale spouting a sledge-hammer line practically lit up in neon as, Listen folks: Here comes the moral. Its theater productions have been full of these, and yet as directed by Rob Marshall (at left), with its book rewritten over and over until he finally
got (most of) it right by James Lapine (shown at right), the finished product is something rapturous: beautiful, moving, funny, appealing, and performed to the hilt. I should think (hope, anyway) that Mr. Sondheim is beside himself with delight. The manner in which the various fairy tales used here (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, among others) no longer clunks as it did on stage; instead the tales blend and bounce off each other with glee and meaning. Further, the use of close-ups makes so many of the moments come to life in ways that the stage could not, while the actors on view could hardly have been better chosen -- for talent, looks and musical ability.

From smart stunt casting like Johnny Depp (above) as the Wolf to the magical Meryl Streep (below), as the Witch,

from wonderful surprises like the pairing of James Corden and Emily Blunt (below) as the Baker and his wife,

to the priceless Anna Kendrick (who simply gets better with each new role), as Cinderella, plus a fine pair of princes,

played by Chris Pine (below) and Billy Magnussen, this first-rate cast does the source material proud in every way. As do the production design, art direction and costumes. Visually, the movie is a complete knock-out.

Best of all, the lovely weaving together of plots, performances and themes -- parenting, loving, autonomy, and morality, and how none of these are at all easy to achieve -- allows this filmed version to soar. It'll move you, make you laugh and give children perhaps their first opportunity to understand how, while fairy tales do indeed mirror our deepest desires and needs, ferreting out their meaning can be a lot more complicated and interesting than they might think.

Into the Woods -- running 125 minutes -- is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital formats.

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