Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review: "Into the Woods"

Adapting stage musicals into films is very tricky in the 21st Century. If one thing doesn't work, the whole thing falls apart. For every Chicago there's a Nine or Rock of Ages. Even Les Miserables, the biggest stage musical in the world, didn't really work on film; it's theatricality lost in closeup after closeup. And don't get me started about the last time someone adapted Sondheim for the screen. The less said about Tim Burton's grim and humorless version of Sweeney Todd, the better. So I went to see Into the Woods with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Yes, director Rob Marshall made the amazing Chicago but he also made the very-less-than-amazing Nine. I was encouraged by the trailers and knew I had to see it (I adore the show). So tonight, I met a Facebook friend for first time IRL (Hey, Michele!) and went to the 7:15 at an AMC I usually avoid, because it was central to both of us.

Let me start by saying that if nothing else (and there is plenty else), Into the Woods is a truly gorgeous movie to look at. It's almost like the first time you're old enough to realize that The Wizard of Oz goes from sepia to full color. Even though the majority of the action takes place at night, it's just stunning to look at. Director Rob Marshall assembled an amazing artistic team which includes his go-to cinematographer Dion Beebe who works wonders and costumer Coleen Atwood whose gorgeous pieces are truly magical. James Lapine's screenplay (based on his original libretto) does a nice job paring the show down to just over 2 hours without losing any of its emotional impact though the very amusing character of the Narrator is reduced to a few minutes of voice-over. If you aren't familiar, Into the Woods is about what happens after 'Happily Ever After' and combines the stories Jack & the Beanstalk; Cinderella; Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood by introducing us to a childless Baker and his Wife. When a witch bursts in and offers them a way to lift the curse that has kept them childless, everyone is off and running.

For the most part, the casting is perfect. Anna Kendrick uses her fine voice at its best as Cinderella and though new to American audiences, adorable Brit James Cordon is terrific as The Baker.* Daniel Huttlestone's Jack sounds exactly like his Gavroche and Lilla Crawford, making her feature debut, is perfect for this version of Red. The most surprising voice belongs to Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince, whose sweet tenor in the duet "Agony" with Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel's Prince is lovely in a brilliantly staged scene amidst a rocky waterfall. There are also some really terrific supporting performances by Tracey Ullman as Jack's Mother; Christine Baranski as Stepmother; Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard as the step-sisters and screen legend Frances de la Tour as The Giant. Happily, Johnny Depp has only one number and few minutes of screen time as the Wolf. The man should never be allowed to sing on screen again. The truly overt sexual overtones of "Hello, Little Girl" were watered down, I imagine because of Crawford's age - Red is usually played by an adult and the Wolf's choreography, makeup and costuming are more suggestive on stage - though the lyrics weren't changed.

But I quibble, because all of them are simply outshone by Emily Blunt as The Baker's Wife and Meryl Streep as the Witch. In the original Broadway production, these roles were played by Theatre Legends Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters. They were iconic, indeed signature, performances. Happily, Blunt is more than up to the task as the story's most sympathetic character, with a sweet singing voice and total commitment to the role. Streep, of course, is always amazing and she takes the part and makes it her own. Her rendition of "Stay with Me" actually made me cry.

If you don't know the show, Rob Marshall's excellent adaptation is a good place to start. If you know and love the show as I do, then I think you'll be very pleased by it. Finally, film justice for Stephen Sondheim! A perfect Holiday Movie for Families and Musical Theatre Geeks alike! **** (Four Out Four Stars). Into the Woods is rated PG for "thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material."

*Corden will soon be taking over for the departing Craig Ferguson on the "The Late, Late Show." 

More, anon.

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