into-the-woods-poster1-405x600With TANGLED before it and CINDERELLA coming next year, Disney’s production of this musical finds the same two lead characters alongside those from several other famous fairy tales, including Jack (of the Beanstalk) and Red Riding Hood. Happily, the filmmakers have forged a magical balance between the studio’s ever-assured family-friendly gloss and composer Stephen Sondheim’s darker intentions. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, it honors the score: while the music is condensed from the stage version, it’s never rushed through and in fact is an integral part of the storytelling. We know already that Meryl Streep can sing, but she nails the emotionally extravagant “Stay with Me”. So too Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen doing “Agony” to clever comic direction, taking great advantage, as elsewhere, of shooting outdoors, or in some cases “outdoors” — the sets are beautiful. (I would have loved to see them do the Act II reprise, whose lyrics upend the sentiments of the first version, but that song was cut.) I’ve loved James Corden since THE HISTORY BOYS and the play “One Man, Two Guvnors” which was recorded live in London. His warmth and genuineness and surprising physicality make him the perfect Baker. Daniel Huttlestone is an engaging young actor, but in his big song, “Giants in the Sky”, he swallows his words and doesn’t put across the song’s double meaning (of his literal encounter with a giant, and how a parent appears to a baby as a giant). Johnny Depp is presumably on hand for star power but is rather wan and could have had a lot more fun with “Hello Little Girl”. I saw this show in its very first incarnation, at the Old Globe in San Diego, then on Broadway and again here at the Music Center. It’s second half has always been problematic, in part because the first act is as close to perfect as you can get. With a beginning, a middle and an end, accompanied by Sondheim’s glorious music, it would send you out into the street smiling if it just ended there. But then we’re shown what happens after “happily ever after” and things grow very dark — until a way-too-quick resolution wraps matters up bittersweetly. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s not fatal. Certainly this is one of the better screen adaptations of a musical and certainly the best one ever done of a Sondheim musical. (We won’t even mention SWEENEY TODD!) — Jeff Schultz


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