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.
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