This Friday, a film adaptation of Into the Woods hits UK cinemas, starring Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick and James Corden. Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical, with a book by James Lapine, was a hit when it first premiered on Broadway almost 30 years ago. Never seen it? Want a reminder of the best songs? Not a fan of James Corden? Good news: you can download it on DigitalTheatre.com. And it’s a thrillingly dark watch.
Timothy Sheader’s 2010 production was staged at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London – a brilliant decision that fuses the magical forest surroundings with the play’s themes. The set design is flawless, all rickety steps and wooden platforms; a labyrinth of ladders that nails the notion of Sondheim’s woods – a place we must all venture into as a way to learn and grow.
It’s a dazzling take on the Brothers Grimm tales, fusing them together into one big mesh of imagination: there’s Little Red Riding Hood, who wants to visit her nan; Cinderella, who dreams of going to the palace ball; Jack, who longs to venture up the giant beanstalk he unwittingly grows; Rapunzel, who fantasises about escaping her witch’s tower; and, running between the pages of each, a Baker and his Wife, who are asked to bring a mix of magical items to the witch to help them conceive a child.
“Into the woods!” they all sing, as Sondheim turns their wishes upside down. Sheader’s smart conceit is to present it all in the mind ofa young narrator, who runs away himself into the nearby trees. Lapine’s themes of adolescence, maturity, parenthood and childhood become surtext rather than subtext – giving the play’s grounding of these stories in reality a bizarre, fantastical twist.
“I need those shoes to have a child!” shouts one. “That makes no sense,” comes the deadpan retort.
The cast leap into the nether realm with infectious enthusiasm. Mark Hadfield is hugely likeable as the well-meaning baker (the role taken by James Corden in the movie), supported by Jenna Russell’s equally sincere spouse, while Hannah Waddingham shrieks gleefully as the old witch before sashaying into her younger form with shimmering sex appeal. Beverly Rudd, meanwhile, gives a cheeky oomph to the naive Red Riding Hood, who comes up against an even saucier wolf (Michael Xavier).
But it is Xavier’s other turn as Cinderella’s Prince Charming (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”) that steals the show: during the standout number Agony (sung in tandem with Rapunzel’s prince – his brother), they lament the impossibility of their fictional love with Sondheim’s trademark wit. “Did you learn her name?” cries one. “No, a dwarf’s standing guard,” replies the other.
The songs may not always seem memorable, particularly in the second half, but the Regent’s Park setting (and its childlike narrator) help to bring a real sense of climax to the musical, as a giant stomps onto the stage, with the voice of Judi Dench and a face made of bicycle wheels. It’s a staggering piece of staging in 150 minutes full of incredible flourishes: thorns blind our heroes and wolves gobble up girls with a disturbing mix of glitz and gore.
In the past, DigitalTheatre.com has impressed with its use of quiet close-ups for static productions, presenting emotion through detailed facial expressions. Here, the streaming service proves digital theatre can cope just as well with ambitious, chaotic action: the dynamic editing quickly jumps from the tiny humans standing at the foot of Dench’s giant to a wide shot of the entire stage.
That contrast of big and small evolves into a juxtaposition of maturity and youth; the tragedy of age dwarfing the excitement of innocence. “Children can only grow from someone you love to something you lose,” laments the witch, who challenges Red Riding Hood on her own blood-stained murder record. “A wolf’s not the same,” argues Red Riding. “Ask a wolf’s mother!” the sorceress barks back.
By the time the climactic number – “no one is alone” – arrives, Sondheim’s subversive, surreal dream becomes a meditation of the impact of everyone’s stories upon everyone else’s. Nursery rhymes are not just a way to confront life’s darker elements as children, he suggests, but an essential rite of passage to understand the world. Haunting, moving and thrillingly dark, fairytales have never felt so important.
The Regent’s Park show won Best Musical Revival at the Oliviers back in 2010. As the new Hollywood adaptation hopes for its own award success, Digital Theatre’s recording captures the superb original with the timelessness of a bedtime story; taking us into the woods – and out of the woods – and home before dark.
Into the Woods is available to rent for £3.99 from Digital Theatre and purchase for £8.99 (in SD) and £10.99 (in HD). To celebrate the film’s release, we’re giving VODzilla.co readers an exclusive 20% discount off all rentals and downloads until Monday 12th January – just use the code “red-riding-hood” at the checkout.