Seen at Shakespeare in the Park: After a relatively straightforward production of As You Like It, the Delacorte is kicking up its heels in its 50th anniversary season with a delightfully designed revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The title suggests a good fit—you are indeed “into the woods” in Central Park—and despite some casting that looked better on paper than onstage it’s a mostly magical evening. As Into the Woods was the first Sondheim show I saw in its original staging, with Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason giving tremendous performances that I remember with pleasure 25 years later, I feel proprietary toward it, and can say that compared to the unenchanted 2002 revival it’s a case of happily ever after.
The director, Timothy Sheader, has to some degree repurposed his acclaimed open-air staging at London’s Regent’s Park. I’m not keen on his biggest change, which is turning the venerable Narrator (who usually doubles as the Mysterious Man) into a little boy lost in the forest; while this brings a younger audience closer to the entire show (its cheerier first act has been staged minus the brooding second act for children) it wreaks a bit of havoc on James Lapine’s book, and giving the kid its last line disrupts an ordinarily perfect capper.
What Sheader has brought to it, however, is stagecraft magic—the show is as rewarding to look as it is to listen to, with an entirely organic treehouse set by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour welcoming audiences into the woods. Watching the cast negotiate this ladder-festooned structure, which is topped by Rapunzel’s house, is part of the fun.
Fresh from voicing the witch in Disney’s Rapunzel movie Tangled is Donna Murphy, who as The Witch here wears an incredible taloned getup that is just as breathtakingly removed. These and other Goth-funk wonders (Tim Burton would appear to have been an inspiration) are the work of costume designer Emily Rebholz; I especially enjoyed her bike-helmeted Little Red (Sarah Stiles), and her work is seamlessly integrated with that of wig designer Leah Loukas and, for the spectacular Murphy, Joe Dulude II’s makeup (other makeup was created by Ashley Ryan). Puppetry designer Rachael Canning, whose conjuring of The Giant is a startling surprise, provides the biggest gasp of the evening. (Her beanstalk of green umbrellas isn’t too shabby, either.)
All of the designers are working at a very high level here, with Ben Stanton’s lighting providing the proper fairy tale ambiance and a typically resonant realization by Acme Sound Partners filling the theater. More earthbound is some of the acting—Amy Adams, in her stage debut, has the chops for Sondheim but hadn’t found the proper tone for the unfulfilled Baker’s Wife, and Denis O’Hare is simply Denis O’Hare as the Baker. I wish they had nailed it—the show is adrift without their full commitment—but as Into the Woods shows you can’t always get what you wish for. It’s still an eyeful, however.
Into the Woods runs through Sept. 1, and it should be seen at the Delacorte for maximum ambiance. Despite mixed reviews, reports say it may go out of the woods and into a Broadway house next spring.
Seen Off Broadway: Old Jews Telling Jokes is exactly what it says it is, except that two younger comedians (Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston) and pianist Donald Corren join three veterans (Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, and Lenny Wolpe) in a fast-paced roundelay of Jewish humor guaranteed to leave you laughing after 85 nonstop minutes. (Sample: “Did you hear about the Jewish mother doll? You pull the string and she says ‘Again with the string?’”) Conceived by Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers, and based on the popular website, the show zings from birth gags to death gags, mixes in a few comical songs, and includes a few testimonials about the need for and the power of laughter. So what more do you want?
I would have been happy with the performers (all outstanding, with Sokol in another bid for national treasure status) on a bare stage, but the show, directed by Marc Bruni, goes the extra mile. David Gallo has created a nicely functional set and, winningly, some witty video design—who knew there were so many desert island jokes? (Steve Channon is credited with associate video design and the clever animation, which gets laughs of its own.) Similarly, Alejo Vietti’s costumes look like street clothes, but they’re facile enough to let the performers transform into numerous characters, including some animals. Supplementing the storytelling is Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design, both elements supple and unobtrusive. And it is storytelling—tell these jokes on your own and they tend to fall flat, leave them to the pros and watch as a rich vein of culture is tapped.
Old Jews Telling Jokes is playing at the Westside Theatre, probably forever, though a friend says there’s plenty of room for more rabbi jokes if a sequel comes to pass.
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Into the Woods
Show Control and Scenic Motion Control: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound
Old Jews Telling Jokes
Scenic Equipment: SFDS Scenery
Automation Equipment: Show Motion Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates