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August 10, 2012

TT: Sondheim in the park

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on two newly opened musicals, the Shakespeare in the Park revival of Into the Woods and the Broadway transfer of Bring It On. The first is a mixed bag, the second a pleasant romp. Here's an excerpt.

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The Public Theater's outdoor revival of "Into the Woods" is a fine idea--on paper. Where better to mount Stephen Sondheim's fractured-fairy-tale musical than in Central Park's tree-lined amphitheater? What's more, some aspects of this production, which was jointly directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel and is based on a 2010 revival that they created for London's Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, live up to the promise of its conception. Donna Murphy and Jessie Mueller, for instance, are terrific, and the "Midsummer Night's Dream"-style set, designed by John Lee Beatty in collaboration with Soutra Gilmour, makes imaginative use of the Delacorte Theater's natural surroundings. If only the sparkle-free, visually unfocused staging looked half so good! It's hard to imagine a production of "Into the Woods" going flat, but that's what this one does.

IntoTheWoodsrr.jpgMessrs. Sheader and Steel have added an interesting new twist to James Lapine's book. The narrator becomes a young boy (alternately played by Noah Radcliffe and Jack Broderick) who wanders into a nearby forest to escape a family argument and gets swept up in the fast-unfolding plot, in which Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack (the one who brought down the beanstalk) run collectively afoul of a witch, a wolf and a giant. This is, or could be, a clever framing device, but it's never made sufficiently clear who the boy is or why he has stumbled into the action of "Into the Woods." Nor does Mr. Sheader know how to use the Delacorte Theater's large stage: Not only is too much of the show performed too far upstage, but the actors are deployed in such a way that you're unsure where to look....

Ms. Murphy plays the Witch with thrilling ferocity, while Ms. Mueller, the Cinderella of this revival, is the finest young musical-comedy singer to hit New York in the past decade. Just as she came out of the otherwise horrible "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" smelling like a hundred-dollar rose, so is her performance in "Into the Woods" fully realized and wonderfully touching....

"Bring It On," which was inspired by the 2000 screen comedy, tells the story of a white-bread cheerleader (played here by Taylor Louderman) who learns a Lesson in Tolerance when redistricting forces her to transfer to a hip-hop high school. It might just be the best-made commodity musical ever to come to Broadway. No, it isn't at all surprising, much less challenging, but Amanda Green, Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeff Whitty have collectively transformed the movie into a soufflé-fluffy confection that goes its dopey way with charm and pep....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted August 10, 2012 12:00 AM

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