Characters from The Brothers Grimm meet on their separate quests. A childless Baker and Wife (Corden, Blunt) seek to undo a Witch’s (Streep) curse while Cinderella (Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and others learn to be careful what they wish for. Will they all live happily ever after?
Johnny Depp in a zoot suit as the lascivious Wolf. It’s so perfect. Even if he still can’t sing but croons ‘Hellooooo, Little Girl’, you have to laugh. Since Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) is that particularly obnoxious Broadway breed of precocious belter he can’t eat her up fast enough for us. But fairy tales are like sci fi; apparent death isn’t necessarily fatal.
Not that this is a typical fairy tale. Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed, oft-revived musical is a darkly smart, scathingly witty meditation on getting what you wish for and the consequences of that. Running through the hectic plot of a pack of storybook folk cross paths in the scary woods are also big themes of parenthood, responsibility, morality. For years the material defeated would-be filmmakers. Disney clearly wasn’t having all of that, so the work has undergone a “family friendly” revamp by the show’s librettist-director James Lapine and Chicago helmer Marshall. Characters and songs have been dropped, Rapunzel does not go mad and die, the not-so-charming princes (Cinderella’s, Chris Pine, and Rapunzel’s, Billy Magnussen) don’t desert their princess brides for Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
The eye-catching ensemble generally acquit themselves nicely through dissonant songs with dizzying, demanding lyrics. Streep is fabulous. Kendrick is a knockout as a yearning, but unsure Cinderella. Blunt’s Baker’s Wife is fine but Corden’s Baker curiously subdued, perhaps missing the focus of the character’s big number. Pine is a sleazy show-stopper romping from panto prince to sexual predator, the two brother princes’ duet Agony, tearing their shirts open posing at a waterfall, a comic highlight of mock romantic fantasy with double cheese. Production design, costumes and effects are as fantastic as one would hope.
The question is: who is this for? Lapine’s screenplay is simultaneously underdeveloped yet overly complicated for non-Sondheimites and children. It’s too grim and edgy for those who love Frozen, not deep and dark enough for sophisticates.
There are brilliant, bewitching moments allied to hilarious and touching ones. Just not enough of them in what veers, at length, between the clever, the terrifying and the bit tiring.