Into the Woods in Central Park: al Fresco Enchantment

A forest in Manhattan proves the ideal venue for a revival of Stephen Sondheim's fractured fairy tale and a grand showcase for Amy Adams and Donna Murphy

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Joan Marcus

The cast of the Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods.

“Ah, the woods,” Stephen Sondheim exclaims about the setting for his fractured-fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. “The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed…” Maybe so for the renowned composer-lyricist; on the evidence of his shows Follies, Merrily We Roll Along and Sweeney Todd, he has equally acerbic views of marriage, showbiz friendship and barbers.

But for many New Yorkers over the past 50 years, going into the woods on a summer’s evening — to the Shakespeare in the Park shows in Manhattan’s Central Park— has been an adventure that often ends in enchantment. From its inaugural 1962 season, when George C. Scott and James Earl Jones starred in The Merchant of Venice, the New York Shakespeare Festival founded by Joseph Papp has presented more than 150 productions in the open-air Delacorte Theater. The Festival has staged all 37 or so of the Bard’s plays, plus classics by Euripedes, Chekhov, Brecht and Thornton Wilder and the occasional musical, like director Timothy Sheader’s spookily sylvan revival of Into the Woods, which opened last night and plays through Sep. 1. For a half-century, the Festival has been one of the city’s great gifts to its residents and visitors, and among the best reasons to spend a muggy summer in New York.

(SEE: a TIME video on Shakespeare in the Park)

Lucky audiences, who wait in long lines for the free tickets, have been treated to towering spectacles with wonderful actors: Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in The Taming of the Shrew (1978), Al Pacino and Martin Sheen in Julius Caesar (1987), Denzel Washington in Richard III (1990), Patrick Stewart in The Tempest (1995), Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald in Twelfth Night (2009). The Shakespeare Festival’s reigning eminence, Kevin Kline, has starred in Richard III (1983), Henry V (1984), Much Ado About Nothing with Blythe Danner (1988), Measure for Measure (1993) and The Seagull (2001), in Mike Nichols’ production with Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman. Some Park productions have transferred to Broadway — the 1980 The Pirates of Penzance with Kline and Linda Ronstadt, The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985, revivals of On the Town in 1999 and Hair in 2007 — but nothing beats the experience of summer in the Park with Will.

At the al-fresco Delacorte, the actors must occasionally shout to be heard over the wail of a distant police siren or the hum of a low-flying plane. You in the audience should be warned that, if Mother Nature feels as feisty as the 30-foot-tall lady Giant who shows up in Act Two of Into the Woods, you will get wet. Rain in the early evening can cancel a performance; rain halfway through the show can create impromptu magic. One night in 1988, toward the end of the Kline-Danner Much Ado, a sudden shower turned the Delacorte into an inch-deep swimming pool. With reckless athleticism, Kline executed a slip-slide across the length of the stage, skidding to a halt in Danner’s astonished embrace. Top that, indoor Broadway theaters.

(READ: Corliss on Sondheim on Sondheim)

In Into the Woods, celebrating the silver anniversary of its 1987 premiere, atmospherics collaborate with artistry. The sun sets at about curtain time, 8 p.m., the natural illumination gradually giving way to the melodramatic shadows and occasional jungle hues of lighting designer Ben Stanton; night descends as the story gets darker. Soutra Gilmour, who designed Sheader’s 2010 production at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, and John Lee Beatty have augmented Central Park’s forestry with their own fake foliage, and constructed a multilevel tree house for the actors to scamper through.

Any child knows the separate stories told in Into the Woods. Cinderella (Jessie Mueller) escapes from her wicked mother (Eileen Harvey) to a grand ball where she meets her Prince Charming (Paris Remillard). Jack (Gideon Glick) disobeys his mother (Kristine Zbornik) and buys magic beans that lead him to a sky-land of giants. A wicked Witch (Donna Murphy) locks the long-haired Rapunzel (Tess Soltau) in a tower, from which she is rescued by her own Prince (Cooper Grodin). And Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Stiles) goes into the woods to visit her Granny (Tina Johnson) but finds a ravenous Wolf (Remillard again). Again and again, children rebel against their parents and find terror or liberation. In one of them, the Wolf finds lunch.

(READ: William A. Henry III on the 1987 Into the Woods by subscribing to TIME)

It was writer James Lapine’s inspiration to mash these four tales together and interlace them with a new fable, of the Baker (Denis O’Hare) and his Wife (Amy Adams), who are told by the Witch that they will be blessed with the child they have long hoped for if they bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. You know where they’ll find them. The show’s first act seems to reach a successful resolution: Cinderella and Rapunzel get their Princes, Jack and Red hit it off, the Baker and his Wife will have their child, and the Witch’s spell is broken, her youthful luster restored. The first act, which ends with “And happy ever after!”, seems safe entertainment even for the very young, who are invited to a special family matinee, at 3 p.m. on Aug. 22, to whet their appetite for serious, frivolous, fantastic theater.

The matinee won’t include Act Two, in which the farrago of fairy tales give way to a horror show. What happens after Happy Ever After? The remorse of answered prayers. The Baker and his Wife suffer through a midmarriage crisis; Cinderella and Rapunzel, now princesses, find castle life confining. Their restless husbands now yearn for other maidens, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; the kingdom clearly has too many endangered damsels, not enough dashing dauphins. And Jack’s notoriety as the Giant Killer awakens the anger of the dead creature’s widow (voiced by Glenn Close). The woods tremble at the approach of this lady gorilla, sort of a Queen Kong, bedecked in garish lipstick and nail polish and cat eye glasses, and hungry for vengeance. People die, just like in the real Grimm fairy tales.

(READ: Corliss on the 2012 revival of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along)

In Look, I Made a Hat, a collection of his later lyrics and recent observations, Sondheim defines the genre of Into the Woods as “farce.” Tragedy and farce are first cousins, imagining the worst and soliciting from the audience either warm empathy or dry laughter. More than Lapine as the director of the two Broadway versions of Into the Woods — in 1987 with Bernadette Peters as the Witch and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife, and in 2002 with Vanessa Williams and Kerry O’Malley — Sheader emphasizes farce in the first act, tragedy in the second. He trusts viewers to make the screeching U-turn with him, and to keep faith in the ability of the characters or their creators to make emotional sense of the extraordinary events.

Trust in Sondheim to find the heart of the matter. After a couple hours of brilliantly complex lyrics set mostly to brittle recitativo, the score blossoms in two songs that tie the living to the dead, and young to their parents. “No One Is Alone” may share its opening bars with the Willy Wonka song “The Candy Man,” but its tone is elegiac, its message comforting: “Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood. / Others may deceive you. / You decide what’s good. / You decide alone. / But no one is alone.” And in “Children Will Listen,” Sondheim offers sage advice to parents — not just the Witch and Jack’s Mother and the Baker’s Wife but any adult — who think raising a child is achieved by commands rather than example: “Careful the things you say. / Children will listen. / Careful the things you do. / Children will see and learn. / … Careful before you say ‘Listen to me.’ / Children will listen.” They are two of the tenderest, most haunting anthems in the composer’s capacious song bag.

(READ: Corliss on the 2007 Encores! revival of Sondheim’s Follies)

The casting is so-so in some roles, but the two stars stand out. Adams, thrice nominated for Oscars, demonstrates that the musical theater is her true home. Her lovely soprano voice is warm and sure; she artfully inhabits the Baker’s Wife on her strange journey. Murphy, 53, a Shakespeare Festival veteran since the 1985 Drood, is an infernal-supernal force of nature, equal to the strongest meteorological elements, as the Witch. First outfitted as a tree demoness — an ill-tempered female kin to the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, and a threat to the unwary of the dangers that lurk in the woods — Murphy is revealed as as a radiant goddess once the Witch’s spell is broken.

But the actress’s spell lingers. Imparting powerful nuance to every word, spoken or sung, lending the Witch so much majesty she is both frightening and sympathetic, Murphy matches or tops her performances as the mordant heroine of the Sondheim-Lapine Passion in 1995 and the bitter ex-chorine in the 2007 Encores! revival of Follies. She is the true sorceress here: her magic is the reason all New Yorkers are hereby ordered to beg for tickets and go Into the Woods.