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Notes of Praise for 'Into the Woods'

November 14, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

"Into the Woods" is in. The new Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical charmed most of the Broadway critics, and one uncharmed one--Frank Rich of the New York Times--did his best to be impressed.

Allan Wallach of Newsday thought the show took a bit too long to find its path but was won over by the "richer and darker" final chapters, where the fairy-tale characters find that happily-ever-after doesn't last that long.

" 'Into the Woods' blends imagination and playfulness in its own very special proportions," Wallach wrote. "By the end the musical arrives at a clearing in the woods illuminated by autumnal shafts of wisdom, but not before it has followed a path strewn with wit and the beguiling songs we've come to expect from Sondheim."

Clive Barnes of the New York Post found Lapine's book adroit and Sondheim's score dazzling--the lyrics, anyway.

The show, he wrote, "takes a new look at adult fairy tales and lunar romance. June doesn't have to rhyme with moon anymore, and there isn't a tune to go with it. I found it refreshing."

Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News found Sondheim's lyrics "much less self-conscious than in some of his work," and in general was enchanted with the show.

"And if you can resist its luscious star, Bernadette Peters, you are beyond the help of potions and spells. Go directly to 'Starlight Express.' Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200."

The most disenchanted dissenter, Edwin Wilson of the Wall Street Journal, found that "one rather basic problem is that the view of the world in fairy tales and that held by Messrs. Lapine and Sondheim are almost diametrically opposed." Fairy tales, he wrote, simplify situations, while for Lapine and Sondheim "nothing is simple."

"Is this a straightforward fable with real import, or an in-joke to enjoy but not take seriously? And what of the muddled moral messages? The figures who have individually sought wish-fulfillment preach togetherness in the final anthem, 'No One Is Alone.' Unlike fairy tales, the meaning of 'Into the Woods' is as opaque as the forest into which its characters have wandered."

Frank Rich said no, but gently. "The conception is brilliant," he wrote, "and sometimes the execution lives up to it." But he was bothered by the heavy plotting of the story, the mildness of some of the songs and Peters' casting as the witch. Although he acknowledged that "it would be a lesser evening without her," he thought her presence only added to the weight and length of the show, without illuminating the story.

Yet Rich admired the ambition of the show, found much of it ingenious and thought it might become the first Sondheim musical "whose dark thematic underside is as accessible as its jolly storytelling surface. This may be just the tempting, unthreatening show to lead new audiences to an artist who usually lures theatergoers far deeper, and far more dangerously, into the woods."

Joseph Papp has been producing Shakespeare since the early 1950s; now he is about to do it right.

Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival announced plans this week to produce all 36 of Shakespeare's plays between now and 1993--a $33-million project reminiscent of the BBC's series. But that was for TV, while this will be basically for the stage--with a TV version after each show completes its run.

There will also be a book about each production. Stars will include--it is hoped--James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen and Robert De Niro, each of whom has worked for Papp at one time or another.

IN QUOTES: Gore Vidal in the Times Literary Supplement: "One of the reasons we create fiction is to make sex exciting."

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