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 August 10 , 2012

Sondheim in the Park with Whiz Kid

Well, I know who I’m nominating for a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.

The pre-teen narrator of Into the Woods in Central Park.

Director Timothy Sheader has come up with a framing device for the 1987 Sondheim-Lapine classic that’s very strange and utterly unbelievable. It brings Into the Woods, to paraphrase Jack (of Beanstalk fame), “back again, only different from before.”

Sheader starts the show by having a kid come under the massive if rickety-looking set that John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour have put very far back on the Delacorte stage.

The lad sits and empties his backpack, which has been filled with what we’ll euphemistically call “action figures” of fairy tale characters. Why would a boy of this age be playing with them? Kids this age usually have disdain for the stories of their childhood. (“They’re for babies!”)

Actually, the lad should have taken more than mere toys with him. He’s run away from home, as we learn when the sound system broadcasts the fight he’d just had with his father. “I hate you!” the lad says more than once.

So to escape reality, the boy says “Once upon a time,” starts playing with his dolls and unleashes two hours and 45 minutes of a most complex riff on a fairy tale. He’s able to deal with psychological issues that would seem to be well beyond the ken of anyone his age. How many kids have come to learn that “nice is different than good”? On the other hand, his making a grammatical error – nice is actually different from good – makes this schoolboy believable – for once. But moments later, when he’s thinking “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,” we once again can’t believe a youth has already learned and processed this.

The kid can also rhyme as deftly as – well, Sondheim. There are no “m’s” matched with “n’s,” no singulars with plurals and no false accents on words. Somehow he knows and adheres to the standards of fine lyric writing. Kids his age wouldn’t, and, as we’ve seen in the last decade’s musicals, plenty of so-called pros don’t, either.

Our lad is excellent at wordplay, too. He not only knows the expression “The end justifies the means,” but he also has the presence of mind to have The Baker’s Wife spoof it. Isn’t it something, too, that in this section of 10 lines, so young a boy is able to make five rhymes: lies, size, tries, prize and realize? He later eclipses that accomplishment when he has Cinderella go eight-for-eight: clue, shoe, do, you, shoe (albeit twice), stew, goo and too in eight lines. I’m impressed!

Who would think that a pre-teen, when discussing a cow, would think that her “withers wither with her.” I wouldn’t even expect him to know what “withers” are, any more than I’d assume that he’d know “rampion.” On the other hand, a contemporary kid would be well-acquainted, for better or worse, with rap, so his choice of music for The Witch’s first rant would be right for a 2012 middle-schooler.

What I most hate to admit is that the average kid today would be well-aware of pedophiles, for he’s undoubtedly been much warned about them. That must be why the lad is treating The Wolf as such a predator. Guess our hero has been watching a few porno movies, too, for he’s very much aware of how some women react in orgasm – as Little Red Riding Hood does with The Wolf in bed (in what must be the most regrettable and repulsive scene I’ve ever witnessed).

In a way, this concept is vaguely insulting to both Sondheim and Lapine. In essence, it’s saying “A child could have come up with this story and executed it in this way.”

To be fair, Sheader has the lad sleeping for most of second act, so what we’re seeing is his dream. That automatically takes us into anything-can-happen territory. Who’s to say that the kid couldn’t come up with this plot while deep in sleep? And yet, how would any kid be so wise to know that many people, after they get what they want, aren’t satisfied and want so much more? And did you know what a manticore was before you knew Into the Woods? This kid does.

“Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose”? If this kid can dream to this sophisticated extent, I say that scientists will be counting the seconds until he dies so that they can examine this brain and discover what he did have they don’t have now.

Well, if it’s a dream, no wonder that the youth has come up with a dream cast. Denis O’Hare is right for The Baker who wants to be the man of the house, postures quite a bit and then must succumb to reality. Kristine Zbornik amuses as Jack’s mother, brandishing a cigarette and wearing a $3 housedress. Gideon Glick is able to make Jack naïve rather than stupid. Jessie Mueller’s Cinderella, after ascending to princess, never loses the common touch.

Guess the lad thought of Amy Adams as The Baker’s Wife from seeing her in films. Good for him for taking a chance on her! You’d never know that Adams has had no professional musical theater stage experience to speak of; her performance is on par with all the others, down to the ease with which she walks down a staircase. However, the wig that the boy has put on her officially turns his dream into a nightmare.

Donna Murphy is much scarier than any Witch I’ve seen in 10 other productions. The actress who I’d nominate as The First Lady of Our Musical Theatre is unsurpassed in expressing exasperation when the characters she deals with aren’t as smart as she. She fully expects everyone to immediately catch up with her every new thought. Murphy is a performer who takes action and Into the Woods gives her ample opportunity to display her ability.

A kid would picture another kid talking with her mouth full of food, and Sarah Stiles has Little Red doing that in the Baker’s shop. A lad might also think that a 21st century girl, when having her cape as red as blood stolen, would not cry but have a very different reaction.

The average boy doesn’t have much fashion sense, so that would explain the helter-skelter costume design our youth has given his characters. Little Red does not have a red riding hood, but a red bike-riding helmet – which a contemporary kid might well imagine. But wouldn’t a kid conjure up a cow that looks like a cow and not just a cow’s head and a skeleton that’s held and carried by various people throughout? (Besides, that cow’s head is not “as white as milk.”)

Today’s kids certainly witness a great deal of violence in films, so our youth would think nothing of a mother’s cutting off a toe from each of her daughters’ feet. He’d also be inclined to kill people off as matter-of-factly as Into the Woods has always done. And while The Giant that he’s come up with is a true coup de théâtre, wouldn’t a contemporary child be thinking in CGI terms? For that matter, would a kid have so much violence and action off-stage and fourth-wall – which has always been Into the Woods’  most unfortunate (and impossible to rectify) flaw?

But in the end, in an age when kids are raised on action movies and Dumb and Dumber  “films” and TV shows with fart jokes galore, can we really believe that a kid would be able to summon up such an erudite –

Wait, wait – I just realized something! The concept does work! Clearly this kid is a big Into the Woods fan! He knows the show inside out from listening to the original cast album hundreds of times, and watching the video just as often! He’s just replicating what he’s learned by heart! He knows it so well that he could – yes! -- recite it in his sleep! That’s why he cast Chip Zien, too, as The Mysterious Man!

Now I’m definitely nominating our lad for a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Any child who likes Into the Woods enough to memorize every word, lyric and melody deserves $500,000. www

         — Peter Filichia


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