5-Star “Into the Woods” movie surpasses stage version

I can think of only four Broadway musicals since 1960 whose movie adaptations are better than their stage versions — those are The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Funny Girl, and Chicago. Now comes the 5th — Into the Woods. Set aside any qualms you might have as a musical theater lover about the film, and go see it.

Start with the best artistic staff that one could assemble for the production: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine tweaked their already strong script and score, and it works even better on-screen in a tighter-but-absolutely-nothing-missing screenplay. Rob Marshall takes the material and molds it with directorial verve, and its captivating from start to finish. J0nathan Tunick expands his orchestrations to over 40-pieces here and they sound lush and melodic. Paul Gemignani musical directs and conducts the Broadway material he knows so well. The art direction, set decoration, makeup and wigs, and costume design are first rate. Everything simply looks and sounds superb.

Now, add one of the strongest casts I’ve seen in a musical adaptation — there isn’t a single weak link in this production (some have complained that Johnny Depp was miscast as the Wolf, to them I say nay nay, his performance is delicious.) While the movie is cast with “actors who sing” rather than singers who try to act, this is a cast where they actually can and do sing beautifully.

James Corden (who has hilariously stated elsewhere that he is actually a “dancer who sings” rather than an “actor who sings”) turns in a loving performance as The Baker, and he’s matched step for step by Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife. Equally assuring is the dynamic performance by Meryl Streep as The Witch. She’s already known as a versatile actor, but now audiences will also see what those of us who have had the chance to see her sing on stage already know — she is simply a great vocal performer. Anna Kendrick is sublime as Cinderella, and Chris Pine acts, sings, and preens his way across the screen as Cinderella’s Price. His performance of “Agony” with Rapunzel’s Prince Billy Magnussen (also terrific) is the highlight of the movie. Tracey Ullman is spot-on as Jack’s Mother, and Jack himself is played by delightful youngster Daniel Huttlestone. Lila Crawford is a very strong Little Red Riding Hood. Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are very fine Stepmother and Stepsisters. Mackenzie Mouzy is a lovely Rapunzel.

Finally, mix this cast and artistic crew together in a giant soundstage that adds a layer of magic to the entire affair, and you have one of the strongest musical theater adaptations you are likely to see in a long time. Like the other musicals I mentioned above, the world of musical theater is defined not by the stage production, but by the movie — there is nobody that attends any production of The Sound of Music anywhere that doesn’t compare it to the movie, not the original Broadway production. The same will be said of the movie version of Into The Woods — it simply defines the show in a way that very few other musical adaptations have done. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Original Broadway production of Into The Woods, and saw it three or four times in NYC with its original cast — but that will no longer be my golden standard when thinking about Into The Woods — rather, it will be this remarkable cast in this eye-candy and ear-pleasing production (sorry Chuck Wagner!)…

Anecdotally, two sets of movie-goers will be surprised by this film: the first, all those kids who have done Into the Woods in middle schools all over America when they find out there is an Act II to the piece (the student version of the show includes only Act 1), and the second, all those Disney fans who find out this is a musical comedy — Disney has gone out of its way to hide the fact that this is a musical, much like they hid the fact that Frozen is a princess-movie.

Absolutely Highest Recommendation.

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