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For Your Consideration: 'Into the Woods'

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Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall, M. Streep
Stephen Sondheim's music grates on my ears, always striking me as too clever by half. This is not for lack of know-how, as he is almost surely the only composer to study privately with both Oscar Hammerstein and Milton Babbitt -- although those also happen to be two artists I do not want to spend all that much time listening to. His lyrics, which often abound with internal rhymes, have a rhythmic irregularity that is reflected in the music that goes with them, constantly looping back on itself in endless repetition and variation. After a bad experience with Sweeney Todd as a young person, I have tried to avoid Sondheim, but with each of his shows that has come to my ears in spite of that, my opinion remains unchanged.

So I did not expect to like the new film version of Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall and with screenplay adapted by James Lapine, who co-created the stage version with Sondheim. Just not for the reasons that at least some fans of the musical will cite, especially because it does not use the same voice types in the roles as the stage version (actual kids for Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, for example, but also someone like Meryl Streep as the Witch). Streep can work miracles, and she even managed to make her voice work for this major role, as she told Anne Midgette in the Washington Post this month.

The conceit, and isn't it clever, is that the Witch brings together a handful of familiar fairy tales into one overly complex plot line. She has placed a curse on a Baker and his Wife, played here with admirable charm by James Corden and Emily Blunt, so they can never conceive a child. To break the curse, the Baker has to collect objects from four other fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood's red cloak, Jack's white cow (which he sells for a few beans), the golden hair of Rapunzel (who turns out to be the over-protective Witch's daughter), and Cinderella's golden slipper. It's tiresome but with plenty of arch fun had at the expense of daft princes, and finally it ends when the curse is broken and everyone lives happily ever after.

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Unfortunately, that is only the end of the first act, and the story just keeps going, for reasons that are too complex to explain, in the soporific second act. The performances are all up to snuff, including the indecisive Cinderella of Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), slap-happy Tracy Ullman as Jack's mother, and the cold-as-ice Christine Baranski (who is a stitch as Leonard Hofstadter's clinical mother on The Big Bang Theory) as Cinderella's stepmother. One of the odder results of the decision to use children in some of the roles is that Johnny Depp has a rather bizarre, barely singing turn as a lupine pedophile stalking Little Red Riding Hood. This is just one of many reasons why this version is really not for kids.

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