Into the Woods Movie Review and Photographs: Disney Does Sondheim

The long-awaited, visually sumptuous film version of “Into The Woods” is likely to please theatergoers who are already fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s clever 1987 musical mashup of our culture’s best-known fairy tales, even if they have some quibbles; it will surely thrill the fans of the many stars that populate the film, a cast so uniformly first rate that Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp don’t especially stand out. We’ll have to see whether the average moviegoers, fairy tale enthusiasts, and parents looking for family entertainment will just scratch their heads.
It wouldn’t be the first time “Into The Woods” has elicited that reaction.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

“Once upon a time,” the musical and the movie begin, and we are introduced to the characters who make up the familiar tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel — as well as a new fairy tale of Sondheim and Lapine’s invention, the baker and his wife, who are cursed with childlessness by the neighbor next door, a witch.  To lift their curse, the witch tells them what they must do:

Their mission thus causes them to interact with the other fairy tale characters, such as Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk.

In the first half, the tales are told in tuneful takes and comic flourishes, such as Cinderella (Anna Kendick) deciding to leave her shoe behind, rather than in the usual tale accidentally losing it.

(The intricacy and cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics like those of “On the Steps of the Palace” helped convince aficionados like Michael Schulman first to fall in love with Into The Woods when he was 10 years old:

You think, what do you want?
You think, make a decision.
Why not stay and be caught?
You think, well, it’s a thought,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew
Who you were when you know
That you’re not what he thinks
That he wants?

And then what if you are?)

(Sondheim slightly changes the lyrics of the song in the movie so that it is all present-tense stream-of-consciousness. Instead of “You think, what do you want?” it’s “All right, what do you want?”)

Midway through, everybody has gotten to the point of living happily ever after. But then adult-like complications and seaminess and tragedies set in — as they congregate in the woods — and we all learn that life is never “ever after” after all.

“One needn’t necessarily have read Bruno Bettelheim’s classic Freudian analysis to realize that, in remaking Grimm stories, Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics and Mr. Lapine’s book tap into the psychological mother lode from which so much of life and literature spring,” Ben Brantley wrote in his review when the musical first opened on Broadway in November, 1987. “What is harder to explain,” he added, is why the show “disappoints” — neither as harrowing nor as moving as Sondheim’s previous efforts. “The concept is brilliant… the various narrative jigsaw pieces often prove either cryptic or absent.”

Still, the show ran for nearly two years and 765 performances, and was revived on Broadway in 2002, and in Central Park in 2012. An Off-Broadway production is currently in previews at the Roundabout. There are plenty of people who’ve never cottoned to this musical; others who’ve turned it into a cult favorite.

Those fearing that Disney would turn “Into The Woods” into “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” can relax. Yes, a few songs have been altered or eliminated; each felt for a good reason. But, as directed by Rob Marshall (director and choreographer of the current “Cabaret” on Broadway and the movies for “Chicago” and “Nine”), the darkness of the second half remains.

Over the years, I’ve vacillated as to which “Into The Woods” camp I belong to, cult or contrarian, depending on the latest production I saw.  The show can seem too clever, and too convoluted.  But whatever its qualities on stage, that is where it belongs, it seems to me. A show rooted in storybooks and fairy tales belongs in a medium that emphasizes language (and melody) and metaphor, and allows us to imagine the story —  as children are asked to imagine when we read these tales to them.  Movies feed us images, force us to take things more literally. That said, there are several scenes and particular performances, however, that won me over to this movie adaptation.

It would be hard to go wrong once you’ve cast Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother and Meryl Streep as the witch, and they are just as funny and good as we expect them to be. But both Chris Pine (best known for Star Trek roles) as Cinderella’s Prince Charming and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince come as comic revelations to the moviegoing public. In “Agony,” they straddle a waterfall in manly poses as if at a fashion shoot and duet together their frustration at their lovers being out of their reach.

High in her tower,
She sits by the hour,
Maintaining her hair.
Blithe and becoming and frequently humming
A lighthearted air

The princes rip open their shirts at the same time, as if in breast-beating agony, but also narcissistic boy pin-up mode.

Later Meryl Streep as the witch (slight spoiler) cuts off the long lustrous locks of her surrogate (kidnapped) daughter Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and shoves her Prince in an eel-filled swamp, blinding him; the two lovers somehow finally crawl to one another, her tears dropping into his eyes and curing his blindness. His first words: “Your hair? It looks good.” – given as hilarious a line reading as anything Magnussen did on stage in both Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and Sex With Strangers)

James Corden, who is slated to be a TV host on CBS and was so anarchically hysterical in One Man Two Guvnors, here plays the baker, with his wife portrayed by Emily Blunt, who was so memorable as the snobby assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada.”  We knew they were good in those roles, but now understand how accomplished they are as actors by seeing them play simple (but not stupid) country people so persuasively. They help steer the occasionally pitching ship that is “Into the Woods.”

But the clincher for me was near the end when Cinderella was giving advice to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, Broadway’s Annie) — the same advice the baker was giving to Jack of the beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone, the preternaturally precocious teen who played Gavroche in the latest movie version of Les Miserables) The song could not have been more melodious, nor the singing more inviting:

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you’re on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you’re not alone.
No one is alone. Truly.
No one is alone.

Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide whats good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone….

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right you decide what’s good


I decided that “Into The Woods” is good.


Into The Woods

Directed by Rob Marshall; written by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the musical by Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine; director of photography, Dion Beebe; edited by Wyatt Smith; production design by Dennis Gassner; costumes by Colleen Atwood; musical staging by John DeLuca and Mr. Marshall; musical score adaptation by David Krane, conducted by Paul Gemignani; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; produced by Mr. DeLuca, Mr. Marshall, Marc Platt and Callum McDougall; released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.

Cast: Meryl Streep (Witch), Emily Blunt (Baker’s Wife), James Corden (Baker), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince), Christine Baranski (Stepmother), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother), Johnny Depp (Wolf), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince), MacKenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Tammy Blanchard (Florinda), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), Frances de la Tour (Giant) and Simon Russell Beale (Baker’s Father).


Sex With Strangers Review: Love Is Breaking Bad

Sex With StrangersSecond StageSex With Strangers,” a comedy about a coupling with complications, stars two performers – Anna Gunn, Bryan Cranston’s wife Skyler in “Breaking Bad,” and Billy Magnussen, the boy-toy Spike in Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – whose previous roles left such a strong impression that there was a question in my mind whether audiences could accept their portraying different characters.
Apparently so: The two-character play written by Linda Eason and directed by David Schwimmer (still best-known as the actor in Friends) is artfully constructed and well-acted, a hit with critics and with theatergoers as well; it has been extended through August 31st.
But are the characters they are portraying that different from their breakthrough roles? All four characters have something in common, and it has to do with love – or, more precisely, it has nothing to do with love.
Ethan and Olivia meet during a blizzard at a bed and breakfast in Northern Michigan. Slowly, it’s revealed that the encounter is no accident. Olivia, approaching 40 years old, makes a living as a teacher but she wrote and published a novel years ago that got mixed reviews and vanished; she became so discouraged that, although she has finally written a second novel, she now considers her writing a hobby. Ethan, in his twenties, is a successful writer, with two best-selling books, based on his blog, all of which have the same title as the play – and are about his sexual conquests. It began as a dare from some of his friends to pick up a different woman every week for a year, and grew into a franchise.
But Ethan has serious literary ambitions. He took a class with an award-winning writer named Ahmit, who, a friend and former classmate of Olivia’s, gave him Olivia’s first book to read as one of his favorite novels; the book became one of Ethan’s favorite as well. It was (the unseen) Ahmit who also suggested this bed and breakfast. Ethan called up and found out that Olivia was staying there. In other words, he sought her out.
She initially finds him annoying. In part, this seems to be a generational difference, as indicated by their contrasting reaction to the Internet connection being down because of the storm: Olivia is delighted (“No distractions.”); Ethan is devastated (“People will think I’m dead. And what if you have to look something up?”)
It takes only until the end of the first scene, however, before Olivia is seduced. Ethan shows himself to be generous and sexy – and his quoting a line from her novel to her nails it. Besides, the Internet connection is down; there is nothing else to do.
Given that this is a play with only two characters, and the seduction occurs in the first of nine scenes, it’s clear that this will not just be a one-night stand. Is this realistic between these two characters? Ethan, although the author of the Sex with Strangers franchise, insists it is; the Ethan who is drawn to Olivia, he says, is the “real” Ethan, a different Ethan than the sex-crazed, callous dude persona of his blog and books. Besides, he says, he’s changed.
Does the continuing connection make sense from Olivia’s point of view as well? Why not? He’s an attractive young man, and besides, he seems determined to help her literary career. He helps her get exposure for her writing, introducing her to his agent, among other things.
But he also wants to feature her writing in the app he’s developing in order to prove he’s a literary heavyweight.
And here is where the playwright subtly demonstrates her insight into modern life. Eason is unlike the writers of many romantic comedies  – a genre that “Sex With Strangers” resembles, but ultimately (and to its credit) doesn’t entirely fit: The playwright supplies motives for the characters’ continuing connection that aren’t just an undefined “love.” One can take love out of the equation, and the trajectory of their relationship would still make sense, based only on animal attraction and self-interest.
Now, consider their earlier roles. Spike’s interest in the movie star Sasha seems transparent; he hopes she’ll help his career. Magnussen’s new character Ethan is smarter but arguably no less calculating. I’ll admit here that Spike casts a strong enough shadow that I had trouble picturing Ethan as having serious literary ambitions, but if I can suspend my disbelief about his ambitions, his character makes sense without my having to suspend my disbelief about his devotion to true love.
Look again at “Breaking Bad.” From the very first episode, it’s a question whether any real love binds Walter and Skyler White. Their sex is comically perfunctory; their other interactions long ago have become a matter of unconsidered routine. Yes, Walter calls Skyler “the love of my life,” but it becomes clear over the arc of the show that he is using his self-declared “love” of his family to justify his descent into vicious gangster – and any love that Skyler had for him has evolved into a matter of survival, fear and disgust. Interestingly, in the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” we learn that Skyler has a concrete connection to Gunn’s new character Olivia: Skyler aspires to be a writer.
One can be taken with “Sex With Strangers” – the wit of the dialogue, the charm of the characters, and the chemistry of the two performers – without ever considering what the playwright might be saying about the ways ambition and self-interest have come to replace love, or are at least indistinguishable from it.

Sex With Strangers
At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
By Laura Eason
Directed by David Schwimmer; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Fitz Patton.
Cast: Anna Gunn (Olivia) and Billy Magnussen (Ethan).
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $89 – $125
Sex With Strangers is set to run through August 31.

Sex With StrangersSecond Stage

Sex With Strangers Reviews and Photographs

In “Sex With Strangers,”  Anna Gunn, who played Bryan Cranston’s wife in “Breaking Bad,” couples with Billy Magnussen, who portrayed sexy, half-naked Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.  Heralded for their previous performances, do they shine together in this new play by Laura Eason directed by David Schwimmer, which tells the story of a sex blogger who seeks out a novelist he idolizes?

Read the reviews.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: One can be taken with “Sex With Strangers” – the wit of the dialogue, the charm of the characters, and the chemistry of the two performers – without ever considering what the playwright might be saying about the ways ambition and self-interest have come to replace love

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged


Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: …polished and stylish. It also boasts superior casting…These two are so fun to watch, you don’t even mind that the writing doesn’t hit all that hard — Laura Eason’s play punches above its weight class….Smoothly directed by David Schwimmer, “Sex With Strangers” is a sometimes cutting, sometimes titillating tale with things to say about art and commerce

Charles Isherwood, New York Times:  The simmering rapport these two talented actors develop quickly lights a fire under Ms. Eason’s drama of good sex and bad faith,

Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway: …when it comes to explosive chemistry, these two actors have it in blessed abundance…across a series of scenes that chronicle a relationship full of ins and outs, ups and downs, comings and goings, and betrayals and forgiveness, Magnussen and Gunn have together crafted a single entity of such intoxicating, preternatural heat that you’ll scarcely be able to rip your eyes away…If only the play itself were compelling enough to justify any of it. Underlying the throbbing passions of the stars is a story choked with dust and indifference

Jesse Green, New York Magazine: You may detect a certain amount of sitcom in the setup — and in the direction, by David Schwimmer of Friends fame…But television savvy — Eason writes for House of Cards — can no longer be hurled as an insult onstage. Indeed, Sex With Strangers has a lot more on its mind than many a downtown gut-wrencher….it’s hot — or should I say cool? In any case, it’s only a slight criticism of Sex With Strangers to say that it’s great summer entertainment.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: Terrific performances and snappy dialogue boost this entertaining and thoughtful dramedy.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly:  B+ There is no reason that playwright Laura Eason’s frankly sitcommy premise should work. And yet it does, thanks to fluid direction by David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer) and charmingly forthright performances by the two-member cast….a muffed ending doesn’t dilute the overall success of Sex With Strangers, which boasts two lively, lusty, and fully lived-in characters.

David Finkle, Huffington Post: Gunn and Magnussen are so good at what they’re doing and have the sort of chemistry together that would shatter a rack of test tubes that ticket buyers may not object too loudly the predictability. Indeed, lithe and limber Gunn…and Magnussen…so assiduously keep on keeping on that spectators will likely continue overlooking the numerous soft spots in Eason’s plot.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: The actors strike sexy sparks: Gunn is warily intelligent and believably vulnerable, while Magnussen pops with dynamic energy (and raises shirtlessness to an art form)….you may get the most out of Sex with Strangers by leaving midway through and calling it a satisfying one-act stand.

Zachary Stewart, Theatermania: Under the deft direction of David Schwimmer, Sex With Strangers is a probing and painfully realistic look at first impressions, modern relationships, and the trust needed to bridge the gap between point A and point B…Gunn is sophisticated, vulnerable, and skittish. Magnussen is bold, childlike, and utterly charming. Both accomplish, in just over two hours, the difficult task of creating an archetypal character and then smashing our preconceived notions of that character.

Into The Woods Film: Preview In Photographs

The film version of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, “Into the Woods,” is set to arrive in movie theaters on December 25th. Meanwhile, Disney has released the follow still images from the movie. Click on any photograph to see it enlarged, and for captions.

Link to first trailer:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Review: Christopher Durang Does Chekhov on Broadway

David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver dressed as a dwarf and Snow White in a scene from Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now on Broadway.

David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now on Broadway.

Buy tickets

“If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about,” Sonia tells her brother Vanya in Christopher Durang’s hilarious yet improbably moving play, now bumped up to Broadway. The truth, though, is that even today when everybody IS on antidepressants,  Chekhov would still have plenty to write about. The proof is “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Durang’s simultaneous spoof of and homage to the work of the Russian dramatist. With its first-rate cast intact, I like the play even better on seeing it a second time, in its new home at the Golden Theater – and I loved it at Lincoln Center.

If it is fair to call the play Chekhovian, “Vanya and Sonia” is also uniquely Durangian – maybe the better adjective would be Duranged.  The still-deranged Durang is a more mature playwright whose anarchic impulses have been channeled into a pleasing theatrical  structure, and whose repertoire has been expanded to include genuine feeling.

As I wrote last November when it debuted at the Mitzi Newhouse, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) are brother and sister (though not blood relatives; she was adopted), who live in an old stone house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. On the day of the play, their sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), a famous movie star, has come home for a visit, bringing along her boyfriend of three months, the far younger aspiring actor Spike (Billy Magnussen.)  Masha’s visits are rare. She has little interest in her siblings, who feel that life passed them by as they took care of their ailing parents, two academics who had a thing for Chekhov, which is why they gave Russian names to all their children.  Masha is back this time only because she wants to go to a neighbor’s costume party. She has brought along a Snow White costume. She also has costumes for her siblings, so that Vanya can accompany her as Grumpy and Sonia as Dopey. She also has a hidden agenda: She plans to sell the childhood home that she pays for, and on which the unemployed Vanya and Sonia depend.

Durang alludes to as many of the plays of Anton Chekhov as possible, but there are only a handful of lines that don’t make sense unless you know your Chekhov – and just a rudimentary acquaintanceship is required even for these. The audience laughs when new neighbor and ingénue Nina (Genevieve Angelson) asks Vanya whether she can call him uncle – and then there are roars of laughter anew each time she calls him Uncle Vanya.

Durang generously gives each of the six actors in the cast at least one special monologue that allows them to dazzle. For David Hyde Pierce, it’s the rant set off by Spike’s finding it ridiculous that people use to lick postage stamps:
“We licked postage stamps, we didn’t have answering machines; you had to call people back. We ate Spam, just like the soldiers in World War II did….We played Scrabble and Monopoly. We didn’t play video games, in some virtual reality, where we would kill policemen and prostitutes as if that was some sort of entertainment.”

VanyaSoniaKristineNielsenasSoniaIt’s a cranky paean to the past, a pointed commentary on the loss of shared memories and connectedness, an amusing catalogue of ooh-inducing popular culture prompts for Baby Boomers, and a chance for the actor to strut his stuff.

But the best monologue is by Kristine Nielsen, who is overall the best thing about the show, and also most clearly representative of its dual pleasures: She wrings huge laughs out of every line, sometimes just from her facial expression. But her telephone call from an unexpected suitor is one of the most touching scenes I have seen on a New York stage in a long time.

Wisely, director Nicholas Martin seems to have toned down some of the excessively campy moments, especially Sigourney Weaver’s take as the aging narcissistic movie star – a brave undertaking by somebody who is after all, an aging movie star.

VanyaSoniaBillyMagnussenasSpikeDavid Korin’s delectable set of a home is further away from us because of the proscenium rather than the thrust stage, but it remains magical – and, truth to tell, the show makes more sense in proscenium: The action is framed now literally, as it has been all along literarily, by the allusions to Chekhov and Greek tragedy and theater in general — Durang’s gentle meta-playfulness.

Still least successful for me is the character Cassandra, an import from Greek tragedy, who goes around saying “Beware” and predicting the future. She is also the cleaning lady. There is something cringe-worthy about having an African-American character practice voodoo. But Shalita Grant makes the part her own, and I realize now that Cassandra’s actions enhance the plot. Billy Magnusen is still spot-on hilarious and sexy as Spike (Vanya: “Why does he take his clothes off so much?” Sonia: “Because he can”)

On the day that they announced “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” would transfer to Broadway — which was Chekhov’s birthday — I had discovered a letter Chekhov had written to his brother enumerating the Rules for Civilized People. Civilized people, he wrote:

“respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous…”

“…have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats…”

“…are not devious..”

“…work at developing their aesthetic sensibility…”

So maybe Christopher Durang isn’t completely civilized — he has certainly developed his aesthetic sensibility, but I cannot imagine his having any compassion at all for cats — and for that I’m grateful.


Vanya and Sonia and Masha

and Spike

at the John Golden Theater

By Christopher Durang; directed by Nicholas Martin; sets by David Korins; costumes by Emily Rebholtz; lighting by Justin Townsend; music and sound by Mark Bennett

Cast: Genevieve Angelson (Nina), Shalita Grant (Cassandra), Billy Magnussen (Spike), Kristine Nielsen (Sonia), David Hyde Pierce (Vanya) and Sigourney Weaver (Masha).

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Ticket prices:  $62 – $132 Buy tickets

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is scheduled to run through June 30, 2013. It would shock me if it were not extended.