While the all star cast of the film adaptation of ‘Into The Woods’ step up to the plate, it’s a shame that their director, Rob Marshall, couldn’t do the same, says David Mullane
The stage musical Into the Woods premiered on Broadway in 1987, in the same season as The Phantom of the Opera. While Phantom took home the lion’s share of Tony awards and is a much more popular show, Into the Woods remains a critics’ and musicals aficionados’ favourite.
It’s a Stephen Sondheim musical so it’s bloody complicated and difficult and nuanced and witty and wordy and, if you stick with it, listen carefully and arm yourself with a good dictionary, it will reward you handsomely with layers of musical delight.
Summing up the plot is difficult but you could say that Into the Woods is a postmodern retelling of a number of Grimm fairy tales, centred around a baker and his wife who have been tasked by a witch with collecting a number of items which she will use to restore her beauty and youth and provide the couple with a child. On their quest, the couple encounters Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack (he of the Beanstalk adventure) and many other secondary fairy tale characters.
Almost 30 years on from its premiere, Disney has adapted the show for the big screen but there have been other attempts to do so over the years. One of the more promising and fabulous attempts was in the early 1990s with a potential cast of Robin Williams as The Baker, Goldie Hawn as The Baker’s Wife, Cher as The Witch, Danny DeVito as The Giant, Steve Martin as The Wolf and Roseanne Barr as Jack’s Mother.
While that cast would have made for something very special, Disney’s 2014 cast is rather terrific itself, with some inspired choices. Meryl Streep unsurprisingly delivers in spades and spades as The Witch and her interpretation of ‘Stay with Me’ could rival even Bernadette Peters’ original cast performance; James Corden as The Baker gives a charming and reserved performance, holding back when he often goes too far; Emily Blunt, as The Baker’s Wife, in in fine voice and herself and Corden have lovely chemistry as the childless couple on the magical treasure hunt; Anna Kendrick doesn’t misstep as Cinderella although, like always, there’s some warmth or humanity lacking in her performance; Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilarious and handsome as the two Princes and their ‘Agony’ scene is one of the highpoints of the film; Lilla Crawford is a star on the rise and her performance as Little Red Riding Hood is as fierce as any of her adult cast members’; Daniel Huttlestone will be familiar to audiences as Gavroche from Tom Hoopers’ Les Misérables but it’s a shame that his Jack is as cockneyed as his Gavroche; rounding out the cast are some unexpected but very welcome surprises such as Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Frances de la Tour as The Giant’s Wife, Simon Russell Beale as The Baker’s Father and the rarely spotted Annette Crosbie (“I don’t believe it!”) as Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother.
The most commendable thing about the casting is that there are no turkey vocals. Despite the tradition of epic stage-to-screen musicals resulting in at least one instance of ill-judged stunt casting (think Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! or Russell Crowe in Les Misérables), audiences will be relieved to hear that the Into the Woods casts’ vocals are up to scratch.
While the cast step up to the plate, it’s a shame that their director, Rob Marshall, couldn’t do the same. Having had mixed success with musicals (a string of well-received television musicals, then the celebrated Chicago, followed by the abysmal Nine), he does a serviceable job with Sondheim’s show and while it must be acknowledged that it is a monster of a story, Marshall doesn’t seem able to handle it. His staging is uninventive and the cinematography is flat and very much of the current Disney live-action style, that being more digitally-enhanced studio work than naturally lit exterior shooting. Suffice it to say that it’s criminal that Marshall chose to go into the studio and to the visual effects department rather than daring to simply go into the woods. On the rare occasion that he does pack up his camera and take a jaunt out into the real world, his picture comes alive, for example the Princes’ ‘Agony’ scene, which is shot on a waterfall.
Luckily, Sondheim’s show and the strength of the cast are mightier than Marhsall’s direction. The wit of Sondheim’s lyrics seems to come across more sharply on screen than on stage, with seasoned audiences possibly hearing jokes that had previously passed them by. Similarly, the film’s orchestration is a nice freshening-up of the score and even diehard Woods soundtrack listeners may hear melodies they’ve never heard before.
Into the Woods is a difficult show, on stage or on screen, and perhaps it is one more for established fans than new audiences, but it is a delight to see such a talented cast doing their best by one of the most gifted composers and lyricists that has ever worked on Broadway. Go for the cast but stay for Sondheim.
‘INTO THE WOODS’ IS IN CINEMAS EVERYWHERE JANUARY 9.
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