PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Into the Woods Is a Mother-Goosed Musical
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of The Public Theater's new Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods, in Central Park's Delacorte Theater.
The solitary drop of rain that splashed on my nose Aug. 9 the minute I arrived at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for the out-of-doors opening of Into the Woods turned out to be, I'm happy to report, a teasing little jest of God.
Sure, balmy breezes blew, to and fro, all evening — invitingly, at times — and there were periodic streaks of lightning across the troubled sky promising to dampen and disenchant the august group of first-nighters who had assembled for summer magic.
This decidedly grim fairy tale with music and an impressive body-count is storybook lore, scrambled for the adult child in all of us who keep hoping, helplessly, for happy endings. The bough always breaks and down comes baby.
By intermission, apprehension had subsided a bit, although one wag was always around to remind you "we're not out of the woods yet." But the rains never came. At the end, in true storybook style, the multitude adjourned to Belvedere Castle above the Delacorte and the fray, ascending notoriously treacherous steps to get there.
Forests, like those in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, are filled with spirits, sprites and fairies. They're in Into the Woods, too, each with a tale to sing — Little Red Ridinghood (Sarah Stiles), Cinderella (Jessie Mueller), Rapunzel/Sleeping Beauty (Tess Soltau), Gretel/Snow White (Victoria Cook), Jack with the Beanstalk (Gideon Glick), everybody, it seems, except Goldilocks, who's got her own musical.
Ruling the roost here is a burnt tree stump of a witch with ravishingly withering limbs who, promising fertility, sends a childless couple — a baker and his wife — on a scavenger hunt in the forest that involves all our kindergarten acquaintances above.
Setting Into the Woods into the woods was the brainstorm of a couple of Brits who tried it with some loud success in London's Regent's Park two summers ago and were brought over for a Delacorte redo — director Timothy Sheader and co-director (i.e., "Movement," that word again)Liam Steel.
Their set designer, Soutra Gilmour, came too, with a grand design, which John Lee Beatty has made work on the stage at hand. The treehouse that Beatty build for As You Like It has been elaborately extended with annexes and even a spiral staircase connecting floors. It's as fanciful as Tarzan's treehouse.
As dark forces take hold of the plot, night sets in — and a genuine enchantment settles into Central Park. When the vengeful widow of Jack's fallen giant storms the villagers, she arrives in supersonic footsteps, and the stage spotlights blink from every thunderous step. She finally materializes over the treetops, wearing what looks like Dame Edna glasses and speaking wildly amplified Glenn Close.
The comings and the goings of the witch are also achieved with considerable wizardry. She sheds her cryptic, coyote-ugly self and turns on stage into a beautiful goddess. Eventually, she goes out like Margaret Hamilton, gobbled up by the ground.
The three Tony winners from the original 1988 Broadway production were very much in attendance — its two creators, songwriter Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also directed the 1987 original and the 2002 revival) — and the Baker's Wife they created for Joanna Gleason to mine so magnificently. "Such wonderful memories this brought back," she said after the show. "Even my body started remembering what it was doing at certain points."
Aside from some writing on the side, the Baker's Wife has become the farmer's wife. She and her husband, actor Chris Sarandon, "have a tiny farm, and it's corn time. It sounds really weird, doesn't it, Joanna Gleason taking about her corn crop?"
Others with Into the Woods baggage: songwriter Jeff Blumenkrantz, who played the steward in the 10th anniversary reunion benefit concert on Broadway, and Laura Benanti, Cinderella in the Broadway revival of a decade ago. Benanti was blissed out that her in-house Prince Charming, Stephen Pasquale, was back from the successful Williamstown tryout of Far From Heaven, Kelli O'Hara's next musical due this spring at Playwrights Horizons.
Absent With Leave: the original Little Red Ridinghood (and a 1988 Theatre World Award winner for it) was otherwise engaged in the Thelma Ritter role in New Girl in Town downtown at the Irish Repertory. Tempus fugit!
Also there: Alex Gemignani, actor-son of the show's music director, Paul Gemignani, and the evening's gifted orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick.
After issuing the obligatory (and mercifully heeded) cellphone warning and dispensing bouquets-upon-bouquets to generous sponsors, The Public's Lion King got serious with the gathering. "It's impossible," said Oskar Eustis, "for anybody to be in my job in the days after Marvin Hamlisch died and stand up and not acknowledge that Marvin Hamlisch was not only a great artist but the contribution that he made to The Public Theater with A Chorus Line and to the American theatre through that literally genre-transforming show is inestimable on one hand and on the other hand, for The Public, quantifiable in astonishing numbers. We are mourning Marvin's passing. We are immensely grateful for what he did for The Public, for the American theatre."
He followed that with a sad postscript: "We also need to take a moment to just acknowledge that we, at The Public, have dedicated this production to the memory of Nora Ephron, who was a board member, a lover of Shakespeare in the Park and a New Yorker par excellence. She made us all proud to be part of this city."
The press interviews that followed the show were held on the front lawn on the Delacorte — and, as usual, Donna Murphy made her usual elegant, last-to-arrive Star Entrance — and with some justification. This is one of those typical all-out Donna Murphy performances. Her witch arrives in a mass of blackness in a determined gait, hobbling along with walking stick, over-driving her voice with a husky rasp like Norma Desmond getting her last shot at the cameras. But not to worry about her voice — "I have a good voice teacher" — and the proof of that is that at the end of the show she does an almost healing version of "Children Will Listen."
"Well, she's a woman who's carrying a lot of weight," she said about her easy domination of the stage and the cowering people on it. "It's been a journey of really trying to find things that weren't easy. I love this role. It's just deep in my heart."
She takes some pride in the Houdini-like on-stage exit she worked out with Sheader and Steel. "It's something that's evolved. It was an idea they had. They didn't want me to disappear off-stage, as has been done in previous productions, because they wanted it to be some kind of metamorphosis on stage, and, at one point, it was more extended, but we got that the audiences needed it to happen faster."
Denis O'Hare came to the show and his lead role of the baker like a blank page. "I never saw it," he admitted with utterly no embarrassment. "I don't know how I missed it. I never saw it or heard it, so I came at it with no previous ideas. [The Baker'] got a slow evolution. He's a flawed person who's in fear of a lot of things, and he strives to overcome it. He doesn't have a masterful breakthrough, but he definitely has a little bit of an evolution."
Happily, he shares scenes with Chip Zien who originated that role and now plays the baker's father — and even sings the other half of a duet with the baker.
"It was tricky when I first did it; I couldn't remember who's supposed to sing where," Zien confessed. "I couldn't see it from that perspective. You know what? It's really been like looking through binoculars from the wrong side, and it's very, very, very emotional. I love doing it with Denis. I hear in my head the voice of Tom Aldredge [who originated the role of the baker's father, identified as Mysterious Man]. I find it very moving to repeat the show, and also, just in the spirit of the show, I try to pass along something that was so meaningful to us when we were younger."
Who's responsible for this fortuitous casting? "I got a very lovely email from Lapine, who said, 'There's been some loose talk that it might be interesting if you would play the Mysterious Man. If this is something you'd be interested in doing, we'd love to see if we could make that happen. And then it did. I completed the circle. It meant a lot to me. It's fun for me because it's a trapped group of people to whom I could tell lots of stories about the original production, and they haven't heard them before."
Could it be that Amy Adams has been rapping her foot impatiently all this time, wrapping film after film and winning Oscar nominations (three, to date) — just waiting to be promptly challenged by theatre? Making your stage debut and doing it with Sondheim is what's known as Going In the Deep End. "That's what I figured," she chirped back, "but who wants to dive in the shallow end? You hit your head, right?"
The Baker's Wife does give her a character with the kind of backbone she has been known to flash on screen. "I like that she's a take-charge person. She's someone who believes in her wish — y'know, believes in what it is she's after. I like her chutzpah."
The not small fact that the role came with song didn't phase her or frighten her at all. "I didn't even know how difficult it was going to be until I started. I remember when I started learning the music before I even came into rehearsal. I knew the solos, but then I started on the group numbers, and I thought, 'Oh, what have I gotten myself into? This is really, really difficult.' But everyone has been great to me. I'm lucky to have really great models here with Jessie Mueller and Donna and Sarah — so many great singers in the show — so I just sat next to them in rehearsal and tried my best."
A slip of paper in the Playbill notes that "at tonight's performance, Rapunzel's Prince is played by Paris Remillard. Usually Hansel, Remillard got the word on Saturday that he would be going on Monday for Cooper Grodin, who had an emergency appendectomy. "I got about seven hours' rehearsal over two days and then was on stage," he said. "It was crazy." And he was fine. In the insert, he thanked casting directors Jordan Thaler andHeidi Griffiths "for throwing me to the wolves and Into the Woods."
Tell-tale Tony winners in attendance: Adriane Lenox, Alan Cumming, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tonya Pinkins in a blonde wig, playwright John Patrick Shanley, producer Daryl Roth and one two-time Oscar-winner, Sally Field.
Cynthia Nixon (in a long-flowing summer gown designed by . . . she forgot) brought the person who introduced her to fairy tales — her mom, "And she started me on Shakespeare in the Park when I was very little. The first one I remember was Stacy Keach's Hamlet, with James Earl Jones as Claudius. And she said I was on to Claudius right away. I could tell he was up to no good."
A pair of potential mayoral possibilities — Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn — arrived with their respective wives, Elyse Buxbaum and Kim Catullo. Other couples: Rutina Wesley from "True Blood" and The Submission and Jacob Fishel, and Frank Rich and Alex Witchel.
The seemingly still-honeymooning Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey, who met and were joined together as husband and wife by Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle, are off to Estonia in a couple of days for a two-week New Playwrights Conference that the O'Neill Foundation is starting. "We're really like a ground-breaking team of actors for the project," explained Mrs. Heck. "It's a Jake Jefferson play we're working on. He's a wonderful new playwright out of Yale."
The author (Rajiv Joseph), director (Moises Kaufman) and Tony-nominated actor (Arian Moayed) of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo arrived as a very chummy unit. Next week, Kaufman starts teaching Jessica Chastain the intricacies of The Heiress role, Catherine Sloper, for a limited run at the Walter Kerr (Nov. 1-Feb. 10). The part won an Oscar for Olivia de Havilland and a Tony for Cherry Jones, so she will be paying attention. Of late, the director has been doing atmosphere soaks around town: "I went to the Merchant's House on West 4th Street — a house from the 1830s —and the woman who took me on the tour opened the door and said, 'Welcome to the Slopers house.' And it looked exactly like that, too. The interior set of the house in the movie was based on the Merchant's House."
Others present: Patricia Clarkson, Pat Schoenfeld, Jujamcyn's Jordan Roth, Kate Baldwin, directors Walter Bobbie and Alex Timbers,Daniel J. O'Donnell of the New York State Assembly, book writer John Weidman, composer Michael Friedman and Camryn Manheim.
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