Sexy Stars Wanted, Singing (not) Needed

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A Review of Into the Wood

I saw movie stars, hot guys, sexy ladies, and adorable children. What I didn’t see (or hear, rather) was good singing. There’s been a shift in the casting trend for the movie musical in the last couple of years. We saw it with Mamma Mia and Les Misérables – the singing takes a backseat. Whereas with Rent or Chicago, it was, “Who are the most fabulous singers who are also wonderful and well-known actors?” It’s now, “Who are the newest, sexiest stars that are very in right now and,with some intense coaching, can hopefully carry a tune?”

The days are gone where the leads in the movie musical can seamlessly step right onto the stage. Having fabulous singers like John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in 2007’s Hairspray deliciously rip the film to shreds with larger-than-life voices and honest-to-God talent appears to be démodé. Please, if there’s a theater god, don’t let them remake Hello, Dolly and instead of casting Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Ewan McGregor, they cast Scarlet Johannson, Denzel Washington, and Ryan Gosling.

However, that’s where the brilliance of director Rob Marshall comes in. Having been nominated for 5 Tony awards, winning an Emmy, and winning the Oscar for Chicago, this man has got to know what good singing is. If he wanted a film with excellent singers, he would have cast Matthew Morrison, Kristen Bell, Seth McFarlane, Sutton Foster, and Laura Osnes. But he didn’t, he made a film that was fully relatable to the layman. I didn’t miss one single word because of a full vibrato or self-indulgent singing. The result is, we were given a film of actors who were scared out of their minds that they would sound terrible, so they compensated with dedicated intent and fully committed performances. And let’s face it, every housewife in middle America will come see a film starring Meryl Streep. Every tween is dying to see a flick starring Chris Pine. But only musical theater lovers would have come out to see a film starring Kristen Chenoweth and Andrew Rannells.

The film is a raging success. It gives Into the Woods what it deserves in a film debut: exquisite production values and Hollywood glamor. From the glorious costumes (like the Witch’s fabulous gown) to the dark, ominous lighting and grayish color palette that pervaded the film, giving it a delectably dark tone, the film will undoubtedly be very popular during award season. One didn’t want the film to end, as the pacing was excellent and the drama was gripping. Refreshingly, it’s unheard of to have a movie so loyal to the actual stage work, which is surely due the fact that the James Lapine was both the musical’s lyricist and the film’s screenwriter. (A nice touch was having the final musical number in the background of the ending credits.)

At the same time, some numbers had trouble adapting to the screen, such as the Baker and Baker’s Wife duet “It Takes Two,”

(overly saccharine) and Little Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now” (which showed unnecessary and bizarre images), which brought the film’s momentum to a screeching halt. (In any other film, those kind of scenes would have been cut.) At any rate, Rob Marshall is an unstoppable machine, showing us that he can work with any musical genre and bring it to all audiences.

At the end of the day, yes, Chris Pine’s voice was nasal and whiney, but he gave us all we wanted and more in the role of the vain, self-centered Cinderella’s Prince. Each movement, each mannerism of Pine’s was delicious and intentional, once you ignored his sad attempt at a British accent. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick’s singing is much more suited to pop than musical theater, and her and acting was college-level at best, but she’s nonetheless a clever actress, adorable, and easily lovable.

As the witch, Meryl Streep, was underwhelming. I was dazzled in the trailers, but her performance as a whole was missing confidence and command of the genre. Streep seemed out of her element in a role that really requires theatrical acting that the film actress seems uncomfortable with. One yearns for Vanessa Williams or Idina Menzel to step-in and really take control (and stop singing entire phrases down an octave). Emily Blunt had some pretty vocal moments, but one hardly noticed her singing because one was so touched by her powerful, yet simple and relatable performance as the Baker’s Wife. James Corden stole the show with a committed and pathos-filled Baker. As The Wolf, Johnny Depp was clearly cast only because he is, well, Johnny Depp, in a performance that isn’t memorable.

They could have at least cast an actor who was tall and imposing or had a large mouth. (Steven Tyler?) The surprise stand-out performance was Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, who’s singing was absolutely spot-on, committed, and frankly, adorable. (This young performer who will go far!) As Jack’s Mother, Tracey Ullman, as always, gave us a dependably dedicated and enthusiastic performance.

Julie Andrews, Barbara Cook, and Liza Minnelli may not have a place in 2014, but the movie musical genre isn’t dying any decade soon. Long, flowing legato lines and big voices are exiled to the stage, and that’s okay. On the screen, musical theater has become accessible, raw, and therefore, exciting!

Written by Alt360º Blogger: David Fair

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