The light is getting dimmer (I wish I saw a glimmer)…

Or, some reflections on having sat through Into the Woods at the cinema this afternoon:

* The coffee cups at the AMC cinema in Manchester are absolute crap. The lids don’t fit, the cups themselves are unbelievably flimsy, and you end up – at least, if you’re unlucky, as I seem to have been this afternoon – wearing as much of the coffee as you manage to drink.

* You might suspect it isn’t a good sign when the headline item in a discussion of a particular film is the coffee cups used by the cinema’s concession stand. You would be correct.

* Having said that, it isn’t necessarily a terrible film. It might even, one key piece of casting aside, be the best possible film that could be made from this material in the absence of the kind of top-down rewrite that is never going to happen when the stage author is also responsible for the screenplay.

* But having said that, some things just don’t work as well in the cinema as they do onstage (and, undoubtedly, vice versa), and I’m afraid that’s the case here.

* The show – we all know the plot, don’t we? – is a mashup of several existing tales and a new one written to join them together. On a stage, it is perfectly possible to have three things happening simultaneously in different areas of the stage, as long as you have a director who knows how to direct the audience’s focus to where it needs to be on each beat of the scene. A camera, on the other hand, can usually only photograph one thing at once (yes, I know there are exceptions, there are always exceptions), so jumping between different storylines that shared the same space in the stage musical requires a lot of cross-cutting.

* This means the movie gets off to a rather jerky start. In the theatre, the twelve-minute opening sequence, with the beginnings of the show’s several fairytale storylines taking place in the same physical space, is a tour-de-force. Here, it’s a lumpy mess of cuts between different actors and different bits of songs, and it never coalesces into a coherent whole.

* The rest of the film is better, but it still, for far too much of the time, seems to progress in fits and starts. Character songs like Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky”, which work well enough onstage, bring the film’s action to a grinding halt, despite (in both cases) winning performances from the young actors in those roles.

* That’s doubly true for the Baker and his wife’s big first-half duet, “It Takes Two”. It’s absolutely charming, it’s beautifully performed, and we’ve got the point thirty seconds into the song, which then goes on for another two minutes. That’s true in a number of places in the film, which feels overlong, whereas the stage show, in a good production, doesn’t.

* With one exception, whatever problems the film might have are certainly not the fault of the cast. The performances – with one exception – are absolutely terrific. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife have good-enough singing voices, great chemistry, and charm and comic timing to spare, Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is suitably earnest and prettily sung, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen ham it up beautifully as a pair of preening Princes. There’s lovely work in even the tiniest roles – Tracey Ullman is delightfully sharp as Jack’s Mother, Christine Baranski is a fabulously bitchy evil stepmother, and it’s fun spotting Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, and Simon Russell Beale in two-minute walk-on parts.

* And then there’s Meryl Streep, who clearly had a ball playing the Witch. She’s scary, funny, absolutely compelling, and she sings the hell out of her songs (something which – cough – eluded the lady who created the role in the original Broadway production). Whatever is wrong with the film as a whole, Ms. Streep is worth the cost of a ticket (so, to be fair, are Mr. Corden and Ms. Blunt).

* And that leaves Johnny Depp, and I wish they had. I’m old – well, over 40 – and I can remember, just about, when Mr. Depp was capable of playing something other than Mr. Depp. It was a long time ago. Here, unfortunately, he doesn’t even play himself particularly well; given that pretty much all the other actors are working at the top of their game, it’s all the more obvious that he’s phoning it in. Fortunately, he’s on screen for less than ten minutes, although it feels longer.

* The design, art direction, and set decoration, on the other hand, are all impressive; whatever the film’s longueurs, there’s always something to look at. And as the story progresses past happily-ever-after into the second act’s thorny mess of consequences and moral equivalency, the film’s look, to the design team’s very great credit, becomes satisfyingly (and appropriately) dark. The plot’s climax doesn’t really work on any level unless it feels as if the remaining characters (by the last twenty minutes, some have died or disappeared) are literally facing the end of the world; here, it possibly isn’t quite as dark as it needs to be (bearing in mind that I saw the original London production, which threw commercial considerations to the wind and staged the second act with a dark brilliance that I’ve yet to see any other production quite match – on the evidence of the DVD, the slick, shallow, too-glossy original Broadway production certainly didn’t), but it’s closer than anyone had any right to expect in a Disney film of this material.

* But just like his stage script, James Lapine’s screenplay still falls apart in the last twenty minutes, although he’s cut this section of the piece far more ruthlessly than he has elsewhere. It’s obvious – not least because Lapine has one character or another state it baldly approximately every ninety seconds throughout the second half – that they were aiming to use fairytales to demonstrate that you must be careful what you wish for, and that actions have consequences (Sondheim is not entirely free from blame here either – those are the subjects of the two dreariest songs in his mostly charmingly effervescent score, and they come back-to-back at the very end of the film). In the event, what we actually get is a story about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a cloyingly sanctimonious ballad about community responsibility while you lure your victim into her trap. That’s been a fault in almost every stage production I’ve seen; the original London production just about got away with it because the director, Richard Jones, staged the show’s climax so that it genuinely felt as if the central characters were facing the apocalypse. That production, though, was dark to the point of being frightening, and quite emphatically Not For Children, and this is a Disney film. It’s to the great credit of everyone involved that they get as close as they do to making it as dark and scary as it needs to be for the ending to work, and Frances de la Tour’s Giantess is a triumph of both acting and special effects – but they don’t quite go far enough, and a miss, in this case, is as good as a mile.

* This is an issue that is possibly magnified in Britain: Red Riding Hood, in the film, is cast younger than she was in the stage show. In the film, she’s a pre-adolescent, and over the past couple of years we’ve been bombarded with a series of truly horrifying news stories about the sexual abuse of young girls by older men, beginning with but not limited to the Jimmy Savile saga and the grooming ring in Rochdale. In that context, the way Sondheim and Lapine present the Red Riding Hood storyline with a clear subtext of sexual awakening can’t help but look decidedly icky, all the more so given that Lilla Crawford is only about 13 (the actors I’ve seen in the role in stage productions all read as late teens). I get that it’s supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, but those scenes tread a fine line, and the extent to which that issue has been in the news here recently results in the film ending up somewhere on the wrong side of that line. Mr. Depp’s louche-but-somnambulant performance doesn’t help.

* Overall, in terms of direction, this is by far Rob Marshall’s best movie musical, although he doesn’t surmount all of the problems inherent in putting this very, very stagy piece on screen. The film looks good, the performances are nearly all excellent, and there are a lot of lovely individual moments, even if the whole never quite adds up to the sum of the parts.

* We should not forget, however, that Mr. Marshall’s two other movie musicals to date are Chicago – fitfully brilliant but exhaustingly hyperactive, and a film whose director clearly didn’t entirely trust his material – and Nine, which was a nearly-unparalleled flaming cinematic Hindenburg which took almost everyone in its impressively starry cast down with it. “Rob Marshall’s best movie musical” is not a particularly high bar.

* And it’s a pity that the one thing – apart from every decision connected to the appearance in the film of Mr. Johnny Depp – that Mr. Marshall really botches is the ending. Having the Witch sing “Children Will Listen” in voice-over over the final scene is a cop-out, particularly given that we see Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife as (presumably) a ghost, and slicing off the final reprise of the title song so that it plays as a standalone piece over the end credits means that the film doesn’t end so much as just stop.

* In the final analysis, then, it’s a disappointment. I enjoyed a lot of individual elements in the film – it’s often very funny, it has a great cast, the songs are often beautifully staged, and it’s always interesting and sometimes enchanting to look at – but taken as a whole, it really doesn’t work. If you love the show – or Sondheim – you’ll need to see it, and you’ll probably want the DVD (though maybe not the soundtrack album) – but once you’ve seen it, you’ll very quickly go back to the two available videos of stage productions and the various cast albums. The film is a valiant effort, but in the end, this material belongs on the stage.

Mmm. Gazpacho.

I saw a resurrection yesterday afternoon.

Four years or so ago, Lincoln Center Theater presented a musical adaptation of the cult-ish Pedro Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Broadway, where it did not thrive. It got mostly lousy reviews, ran a few weeks, and closed before the end of the scheduled “limited run” (which would have very quickly become unlimited if the show had taken off at the box office). That’s usually the end of the story – Broadway is littered with the corpses of dead and mostly-forgotten musicals, and so is the West End – except that this time the show’s creators – composer/lyricist David Yazbek, librettist Jeffrey Lane, and director Barlett Sher – all apparently felt there was something in the show worth saving. The cast recording – a frenetic, slightly cartoonish listen that isn’t helped in the slightest by the fact that everyone in the show’s (admittedly impressive) cast is forced to perform using a ridiculous cod-Thpanish accent, presumably in case we all forget this thing is set in Madrid – partly reveals why: underneath the silly accents and the overcaffeinated performances and orchestrations, there are three or four very distinguished songs, and a few more that are at least distinctive.

This London production, then, represents a second chance for the show, and everyone involved appears to be going to great pains in the pre-opening publicity (it’s still in previews) to make it clear that this is not – repeat, NOT – the Broadway production, although it retains the same director. This, we are told, is a smaller, more focused version of the show, incorporating significant revisions including a number of new songs. They haven’t quite gone to the trouble of having a pop-up box saying “this version of the show has been HEAVILY REVISED” appear when you click the link on their website to book a ticket, but don’t imagine somebody didn’t consider it. From the list of songs on the cast album, ‘Time Stood Still’, ‘The Microphone’, and ‘Shoes From Heaven’ are gone; in their place are a (very effective) solo for Lucia called ‘It’s Me’ and a beautiful new finale called ‘The View From Here’ (the scene which contained ‘The Microphone’ has been eliminated). There are some internal changes within some numbers that have been retained, particularly in the second act, the order of songs is a little different (‘Island’ comes later in the first act, as Pepa makes the gazpacho), and the aim throughout appears to be to keep the central strands of the narrative – Pepa’s pursuit of Ivan, Lucia’s pursuit of Ivan and Pepa, and Candela’s realisation that her boyfriend is a terrorist – firmly in focus.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the work appears to have paid off. The clips of the Broadway production that Lincoln Center Theater put on youtube suggest a sprawling, garish, frenetic staging that could overpower the more delicate elements of the plot (I’m not going to give a synopsis here – the movie has been out for more than 25 years and is an acknowledged classic, so if you don’t know what it’s about, you can go and google it yourself). Sher’s London staging, by contrast, is studiedly simple. Here, the show is staged on a two-tier unit set, with (mostly) minimal props and furniture for any scene taking place outside Pepa’s apartment. There are no projections, no moving scenery, and the taxi is two chairs and a steering-wheel. If you like your musicals big and spectacular, this is not the show for you. The simpler approach works well with the material, though – the production has a fluidity that isn’t always easy to achieve in a piece which incorporates a lot of relatively short scenes, and the quieter emotional beats underpinning the rather outlandish plot are allowed room to breathe. Parts of the show are very funny indeed, but the resolution is surprisingly touching. It’s not perfect – although I saw a preview, and it’s likely some timing/blocking issues will be fixed in the week left before it opens – but this is a stylish, funny production that makes an excellent case for the show as a chamber musical, and reveals Yazbek’s score to be rather better than you’d guess from the Broadway cast recording, even given that it always contained a few very strong musical numbers. Surprisingly, the new orchestrations – yes, for a smaller band – help; in this production, the score has a strong Spanish flavour, whereas the orchestrations on the Broadway cast album (for a band that, even there, is not particularly large) are redolent of nothing so much as a particularly frenetic Wacky Races cartoon that takes place on the Autopista de Circunvalación.

The attempt to put as much distance as possible between this production and the previous one even extends to the casting. The Broadway production was luxury-cast with a parade of New York’s best musical theatre performers (and Patti LuPone, but you can’t have everything). Despite the over-emphatic orchestrations and the silly accents, the New York cast sang the hell out of Yazbek’s score, sometimes (on the album, at least) at the expense of either the comedy (Brian Stokes Mitchell, a matinee-idol baritone who doesn’t locate the humour in the preening Ivan’s numbers) or the emotional truth of the moment (Sherie Rene Scott delivers a very pretty ‘Mother’s Day’, but there’s no feeling behind it at all, and it’s supposed to be the second act’s emotional anchor) or both (the aforementioned Ms. LuPone, who steamrollers her way through ‘Invisible’ as if the song’s lyrics, and the story they tell, are a mere detail that needn’t concern her). The only completely successful performance is from Laura Benanti as the unstable model Candela (not coincidentally, Ms. Benanti is the only performer in the Broadway cast who completely owns her Spanish accent); everyone else in some way misses the mark.

In London, accordingly, Sher has assembled a very different kind of cast. With very few exceptions, these are actors who sing rather than musical theatre perfomers, led by Tamsin Greig, who has never appeared in a musical before. Ms. Greig is one of the very best comic actresses of her generation; as Pepa, the show’s central role, her job (on top of actually playing the role) is to give the show its emotional centre without being overshadowed by a cast of more colourful supporting characters. Ms. Greig knows how to hold a stage; nobody is ever going to queue up to buy, say, an album of her doing Gershwin standards, but she’s clearly worked very hard indeed on her singing. She reveals an appealingly throaty voice with a surprising range, she’s absolutely in control of it, and her singing gives the character a lovely (and very necessary) vulnerability. It goes without saying that Ms. Greig finds all the laughs and then some, but her “Mother’s Day” is very touching indeed; she does an excellent job throughout of negotiating the space between the show’s emotional core and the more outlandishly farcical plot twists. It’s a difficult role, and she nails it.

There are fine performances from the other leads as well. The standouts? Anna Skellern’s Candela, again, can’t sing like Laura Benanti (though to be fair, that’s a very big club), but she’s both hilarious and believably real, whether she’s yelling into a phone, climbing onto a ledge, or passing out after drinking spiked gazpacho. Jérôme Pradon’s Ivan is an overgrown child who loves women but can’t deal with reality or responsibility; Ivan’s character arc makes better sense here that it does in the film, never mind on the Broadway cast album. Ricardo Afonso’s Taxi Driver kicks the show off with a sizzling “Madrid”, then does a spectacular job of “My Crazy Heart” at the top of the second act, hitting a couple of high notes that induce gasps from the audience. And Haydn Gwynne’s Lucia, Ivan’s vengeful wife who has spent the last 19 years in a mental institution, is more or less perfect. She’s crazy, funny, occasionally achingly sad, and when she strikes a balletic pose on the back of a Vespa in the second act’s climactic chase scene she’s a wonder to behold. She also sings beautifully (and unlike her Broadway counterpart, puts the lyrics across with absolute clarity – no mush-mouthed diction here, thank you very much), and finds every ounce of pathos in “Invisible”, her big Act Two solo. And – for this character, possibly the most important skill of all – she can’t half rock a pair of sunglasses.

Whether or not all this work will turn the show into a hit, though, is another question. It’s good, certainly, but it’s a piece which seems to fall between several stools. The film often seems to be perceived as an out-and-out farce, and it isn’t, and this isn’t either; if you come to this show looking for that kind of comedy, you may not be entirely satisfied. The songs are terrific – it’s Yazbek’s best musical score by a mile – but there isn’t necessarily a big take-home tune, apart from perhaps ‘My Crazy Heart’, which in this production is sung in a key almost nobody could emulate. It’s a simple production staged on a unit set, so you won’t find dazzling visuals here. And while I thought Ms. Greig gave a wonderful performance, it’s not impossible that someone familiar with the Broadway album would find her singing disappointing. It’s also anyone’s guess what the reviews will be when it opens a week from now. Still, the mere fact that Sher and company have taken something that manifestly didn’t work in its first incarnation and transformed it into something that does is a rare and surprising achievement. Most flop musicals – and there are far more flops than hits – sink without trace, and second chances are relatively rare. It may well not have worked at all on Broadway, but this is a show that deserves to be seen.

Oh yes, and a quick note to the two “ladies” in the row behind me who slurped from takeout cartons of soup (not gazpacho) throughout the first ten minutes of the show: please do us all a favour, and stay home until you’ve learned how to behave in a theatre. We’d all paid to listen to the cast, not the sound of the pair of you eating like pigs. Thanks.