May 12, 2012
By ANITA GATES
Courtesy of The New York Times - Arts Connecticut
Jeffry Denman, center, as the narrator in "Into the Woods," with, from left, Nik Walker, Jenny Latimer, Danielle Ferland as the Baker’s Wife and Erik Liberman as the Baker.
Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson
The grotesque old witch who becomes young and beautiful at the end of Act I has arrived in Westport. So have the prince who explains that he was “raised to be charming, not sincere,” the rejected cow Milky White and the baker’s wife who can’t have children because of a salad-related curse.
The Westport Country Playhouse has opened its 2012 season with “Into the Woods,” one of Stephen Sondheim’s most melodic musicals. Mark Lamos, the theater’s artistic director for three years now, has directed an unassuming but savvy coproduction with Baltimore CenterStage. It has glorious moments and notable assets, even if the sharp, cynical edges are sometimes sanded too smooth.
Let’s start with the cast. The exquisite Jenny Latimer, who was in Westport’s “She Loves Me” and played Cosette in Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th-anniversary production of “Les Misérables” (including a memorable stop at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey a season ago), is Cinderella. This mostly traditional character is vaguely aware that she is much more impressed by the royal ball than by the prince himself. But if the shoe fits ... and it does, of course.
There is the estimable Alma Cuervo as Cinderella’s stepmother; Nikka Graff Lanzarone, a scene-stealer from Broadway’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” as a wicked stepsister; the veteran Cheryl Stern as Jack’s cash-strapped, cow-selling mother; and Danielle Ferland, who as a teenager played Little Red Riding Hood in the show’s original Broadway production, now combining poignancy with broad comedy as the Baker’s Wife.
BALL: Mr. Walker and Ms. Latimer as the Prince and Cinderella
Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson
Westport’s Little Red Riding Hood is Dana Steingold, who has a gift for deadpan humor and is at least old enough to have a degree from New York University. Nik Walker, who plays Cinderella’s Prince with disarming pretty-boy humor, is also fresh from N.Y.U., class of 2010. Mr. Walker is very different as the Wolf, whose pelvis-twisting sensuality suggests a young Frank Langella.
The star, however, is the Witch. Bernadette Peters played the role in the original 1987 Broadway production; Vanessa Williams did it in the 2002 Broadway revival. Lauren Kennedy takes on the role here, with mixed results. She never allows herself to play the ugly witch as truly ugly and twisted, and after her beauty is restored, she seems consistently disingenuous about her comic abilities. But Ms. Kennedy has a lovely voice, which she shows off in “Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen.”
There were several children at a recent performance, and “Into the Woods” offers much for them to enjoy, but Mr. Sondheim’s songs and James Lapine’s book are not exactly the saccharine fairy tales of our youth. On the other hand, with rare exceptions (like Cinderella’s stepmother blithely chopping off parts of her daughters’ feet in an attempt to have them fit a certain slipper), they are not the violent early versions of the tales that Bruno Bettelheim wrote about in “The Uses of Enchantment.”
No, the brutality in the enchanted forest of Sondheim-Lapine is born of adult terrors. Princes cheat on their wives. Mothers keep their grown daughters in towers. Couples do anything in their power to have a baby, then want to kill it when it cries (though these characters never go nearly that far).
Candice Donnelly’s costume design strikes a lively note between what we expect fairy-tale characters to wear and a plucky distinctiveness. The narrator, Jeffry Denman, looks a bit like Svengali, as if he can control the characters in the story he is telling so well. Ms. Cuervo’s stepmother is a midmillennium Mildred Pierce in mutton-chop sleeves, a stiff ruff and what contemporary Americans can see only as a pilgrim’s hat. For the ball, Ms. Latimer’s Cinderella wears a sweet, pink gown with a white underskirt and satin roses in her hair. As Cinderella’s dead mother, Britney Coleman wears a shimmering shroud, as if the afterlife were all about veils and gentle lighting.
Allen Moyer’s scenic design goes the blatantly fake route, which is certainly appropriate for the subject matter. Cutouts of half-timbered houses and other village settings alternate with cutouts of lush green trees, and a dollhouse of sorts represents the stage on which the magical stories are told.
“Into the Woods” may turn out to be the revival of the year in New York. In July,Shakespeare in the Park will present it at the Delacorte Theater with a cast that includes Amy Adams and Donna Murphy. No matter who sings them (and I once saw elementary-school children do a smashup job in a Symphony Space Sondheim tribute), the lyrics are loaded with truths:
“It’s nice to know a lot. And a little bit not.” “How do you ignore all the witches?” “The farther you run, the more you feel undefined.” “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the woods.” “Wishes come true, not free.” If “No One Is Alone,” the beautiful penultimate number, is sentimental, heaven knows we need it after all of this therapeutic fact-facing.
“Into the Woods,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, through May 26. Information and tickets: (203) 227-4177 or westportplayhouse.org