Thursday, August 30, 2012

“Into the Woods” - Where The Journey Is Everything

By Judd Hollander

Be sure the wish you wish for is the wish you actually want. So goes the message of Into the Woods (book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) presented by the Public Theater, and casting its spell at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park while providing a gentle yet thought-provoking look at dreams versus reality and what can happen after "happily ever after" has come and gone.

In the present day, a young boy (Jack Broderick), angry at his single father who is usually too busy working to spend any time with him, runs away from home. Hiding out in a wooded area, he begins to read a book of fairy tales before falling asleep as the characters come to life. Among those appearing include Cinderella (Jessie Mueller), Little Red Ridinghood (Sarah Stiles), Jack - of Jack and the Beanstalk fame (Gideon Glick), Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) and of course, a Witch (Donna Murphy).

At the center of it all is the Baker (Denis O'Hare) and the Baker's Wife (Amy Adams). A couple who are unable to have a child, due to a curse by the Witch in retaliation for the actions of the Baker's long-deceased parents, and which also has something to do with Rapunzel and a Mysterious Man (Chip Zien). In order to lift the spell, the Witch sends the Baker, accompanied by his Wife and against his wishes, on a quest to find a series of objects. As the two begin their journey, they encounter, both separately and together, others in the woods on missions of their own. There's Red Ridinghood on her way to visit her Grandmother (Tina Johnson), that is, if she can avoid a rather hungry and surprisingly sensual Wolf (Ivan Hernandez); the lonely Cinderella who would love to go to the festival thrown by the Prince (Hernandez) if she could only get away from her wicked Stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and Stepsisters (Bethany Moore and Jennifer Rias); Rapunzel, who's locked away in a lonely tower; a somewhat simple boy named Jack who's on his way to sell his beloved cow; and two Princes (Hernandez & Paris Remillard), bothers and mirror images of one another, each looking for maidens to rescue and caught up in the passion of the chase.

Surprisingly each of the characters, even the Witch to a degree, seem to get exactly what they want. However once you have attained your wildest dreams, what does one do next? This is the question posed at the beginning of act two. It also turns out there are always consequences for one's actions, such as Jack chopping down the beanstalk and sending a giant hurtling to his death. The sudden rise of discontent, unease and fear among the characters also leads to issues of mob mentality, shifting alliances and the ultimate realization that parents must be very careful of what they do or say; for their children will remember and act accordingly when it comes their time to venture into the woods. Said woods being a metaphor for life and the wondrous magic and incredible danger it offers.

The strong story is helped immeasurably by the equally good score. While few of the numbers are all that memorable, other than the chorus of the title tune, and most probably won't work in any setting other than the context of the musical itself, in that context they are powerfully able to bring home the message and emotions the text sets forth. The choreographic work is also very well presented with the group numbers making good use of the set created at the Delacorte; the backdrop of Central Park also making a nice fit for the musical.

The only real problem comes with the cast, where it's a case of supporting characters being more effective than the leads. Neither O'Hare or Adams are all that sympathetic. The Baker being especially unlikable at times, coming off as a sort of medieval man in terms of his mindset on the roles of women. This may be appropriate for the character, but O'Hare isn't able to make the Baker's qualities translate into anything with which the audience can emphasize. Working a bit better is Donna Murphy as the Witch, while Mueller does a wonderful turn as Cinderella; a woman who talks to birds and who, like several others, is seeking something somewhere in-between the hard and good times she has experiences thus far. Remillard and Hernandez offer good comic relief and the occasional bursts of truth as the Princes, two fellows with their heads continually in the clouds, and to whom the journey itself is more important than what can be found at its end. Stiles does well as the alternatively naive and sarcastic Red Ridinghood, while Zien has fun with the Mysterious Man character. Trivia note: Zien played the Baker in the original 1987 production of the show on Broadway. Broderick is good as the boy/narrator who helps guide the story - at least up to a point.

It should be noted that Lapine and Sondheim used as their source material the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, ones quite graphic in terms of retribution and payback, and thus some of the scenes in the show, especially those with Red Ridinghood and the Wolf, may not be suitable for younger children.

Timothy Sheader's direction is good, but he's ultimately unable to guide some of the actors so that their characters emotionally connect with the audience. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour wonderfully sets the moment and place depicted, while the puppetry skills of Rachel Canning work handsomely when it comes to the appearance of the Giant. Lighting by Ben Stanton was nicely done and the orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick were excellent. The set also does a good job concealing the onstage musicians so as not to cause their presence to distract from the various storylines.

While the show does have some problems, Into the Woods is still a nice production that wonderfully fits into the sounds of summer. There have been rumors of the show moving to Broadway and if that is the case, one hopes the production changes up the cast a bit before it makes the move. In case that doesn't happen, or even if it does, do your best to see it before it ends its run at the Delacorte.

Into the Woods
Book by James Lapine
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Co-Directed by Liam Steel

Featuring: Amy Adams (Baker's Wife), Jack Broderick (Narrator), Glenn Close (The Voice of the Giant), Victoria Cooke (Harp/Gretel/Snow White), Gideon Glick (Jack), Paris Remilliard (Rapunzel's Prince), Cinderella's Stepmother (Ellen Harvey), Cinderella's Prince/Wolf (Ivan Hernandez), Little Red Ridinghood's Granny (Tina Johnson), Josh Lamon (Steward), Bethany Moore (Florinda), Jessie Mueller (Cinderella), Donna Murphy (Witch), Johnny Newcomb (Woodsman), Denis O'Hare (Baker), Jennifer Rias (Lucinda), Laura Shoop (Cinderella's Mother), Laura Shoop (Cinderella's Mother), Tess Soltau (Rapunzel/Sleeping Beauty), Sarah Stiles (Little Red Ridinghood), Eric R. Williams (Hansel), Kristine Zbornik (Jack's Mother), Chip Zien (Mysterious Man)

Originally Directed on Broadway by James Lapine
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Puppetry: Rachel Canning
Wig Design: Leah Loukas
Movement Direction: Liam Steel
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Music Director: Paul Gemignani
Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist
Stage Manger: Pamela Salling
Dance Captain: Jennifer Rias

The production is based on the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre London Production
produced by Timothy Sheader and William Village for Regent's Park Theater Ltd.

Michael Atkinson: French Horn
Emily Brausa: Cello
Richard Brice: Viola
Bass: Lisa Chin
Violin: Sylvia D'Avanzo
Trumpet: Doninic Derasse
Annbritt Du Chateau: Keyboard/Associate Conductor
Elizabeth Mann: Flute/Piccolo
Don McGeen: Bassoon
Les Scott: Clarinet
Percussion: Thad Wheeler

Delacorte Theater
81st Street at Central Park
Admission: Free
Running time: 3 hours, one intermission
Closes: September 1, 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

Richard III - "An acting tour-de-force, and a good production too"

By Judd Hollander

Hypocrisy, thy name is Richard, a truism quickly proved in the absolutely brilliant production of William Shakespeare's Richard III at the Public Theater. Presented by the Public's Mobile Shakespeare Unit, this production is a stripped-down version of the Bard's classic tale, one which has previously toured New York City's jails, homeless shelters and centers for the elderly. Using no set to speak of, with minimal props and lighting, the show leaves the basic story intact, with the strong performances and direction ultimately carrying the day. The show also gets a very important boost from the excellent work by Ron Cephas Jones in the title role.

In not-so-merry England, the multi-generational so-called "War of the Roses" between the houses of Lancaster and York has finally ended, leaving King Edward IV (Kevin Kelly) as ruler. However, Edward's brother Richard (Jones), a valiant warrior in battle and a man deformed in both arm and leg, is not pleased with this outcome and so begins scheming to put himself upon the throne. In short order, he turns the now-ailing Edward against their other brother George Clarence (Miriam A. Hyman), arranges for Clarence to be sent to his death and, upon the King's own passing, has Edward's two young sons (Alex Hernandez, Michelle Beck) murdered; all the while continuing to sew the seeds of discontent among the various members of the court. Richard also finds an ally to his cause in the scheming Duke of Buckingham (Michael Crane), as well as the more toadyish civil servant Catesby (Kelly). Yet for all his machinations, Richard is still not safe. For despite his best efforts, there are those, both living and dead, who continue to defy him. All of which leads to a final confrontation where Richard must not only battle his mortal enemies, but also struggle against the effects of a bitter curse handed down by Queen Margaret (Suzanne Bertish), a formerly banished woman who has returned in the name of revenge.

The conclusion to the Shakespeare history cycle, one which began several plays earlier with Richard II, Richard III is, at its heart, a look at the evilness of man and his ability and ultimate willingness to be corrupted. The work is also a satire on the art of manipulation. Building on themes inherent in the play, Jones imbues his Richard with a liberal dash of black humor, portraying the character as a combination cold-blooded killer and smiling confidence man, someone who freely admits his past sins, all the while surrounding himself with an air of malicious yet somehow attractive hypocrisy. It's this supremely confident and knowing attitude that makes Richard almost endearing to the audience, the character reaching the height of audacity when he dons, at Buckingham's urging, the bearing and attitude of pious and somber fellow, complete with prayer book, while letting himself be "forced" by the Lord Mayor of London (Bertish) and others into accepting the position of King, one which he has not-so-secretly coveted all along.

Jones is also able to mix a strong dose of sensuality into his character, as evident with his scene with Lady Anne (Beck), Richard having slain her husband in battle before the play began. However after explaining that he did this out of his own love for her, Richard is able to reduce Anne from a woman spitting verbal venom to one overcome by the passion of the moment. The position Anne finds herself in, that of almost wanting to believe Richard speaks the truth, is repeated when Richard approaches Queen Elizabeth (Lynn Hawley), the late King Edward's wife, after murdering her two sons and asking for her help so that he may now woo and win her daughter (Hyman).

While the character of Richard clearly takes and owns the center stage, the entire cast, many of them playing multiple roles, are all quite good. In addition to Beck's strong turn as Lady Anne, there's Suzanne British's scenery-chewing work as Queen Margaret, a woman who has lost everything, but who is determined to set her curse upon Richard and others at court, watching with sadistic pleasure as what she proclaims unfolds. She also has a great final speech, one she delivers with gusto once her work is done. Hawley does well as Elizabeth, changing in attitude from a Queen in her own right to one who sees her entire world falling apart. Crane is enjoyable as Buckingham. Someone who, like Richard, is determined to get the riches and position he feels is due him.

The direction by Amanda Dehnert is spot-on, the production making full use of the relatively playing space while keeping the emphasis on characterization. Under her tutelage, every scene is full of emotion; whether pent up, held in check or busting at the seams with righteous fury or full-on malevolence. Thomas Schall's fight direction is also very good, especially as used during Richard's final battle.

Due to the streamlining of the show, which usually runs close to three hours, not all of the characters are as fully defined as they could be, and some of the plot points also suffer a bit, especially with explanations at times going by so quickly that if one's attention waivers for a moment, a key piece of information may be lost. Still, to those familiar with the world of Shakespeare, this version of Richard III should be an enjoyable experience; and for those not all that intimate with the Bard, it's a good place to get started, and hopefully whet one's appetite for more.

Richard III
Featuring: Ron Cephas Jones (Richard), Suzanne Bertish (Brakenbury, Queen Margaret of Anjou, Lord Mayor of London), Miriam A. Hyman (George Clarence, Lord Grey, Bishop of Ely, Young Elizabeth), Keith Eric Chappelle (Hastings, Tyrrel), Michelle Beck (Lady Anne, Young York), Lynne Hawley (Queen Elizabeth), Michael Crane (Corpse of King Henry IV, Buckingham) Kevin Kelly (King Edward IV, Catesby), Alex Hernandez (Lord Rivers, Prince Edward, Richmond), Members of the Company (Messengers, Guards, Servants)

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Scenic and Costume Design: Linda Roethke
Original Music: Amanda Dehnert
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Text Coach: Susan Finch
Production Stage Manager: Anne McPherson
Violin: Alex Hernandez
Stage Manager: Lily Perlmutter

Presented by The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes – no intermission
Closes: August 25, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012