Into the Woods appears to have become the most popular musical by the late Stephen Sondheim. Originally produced on Broadway in 1987, it has been revived on Broadway in 2002 and 2022. It was performed outdoors at The Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2012. Fiasco Theater’s clever cut down version was presented at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off Broadway Laura Pels Theatre in 2014. This year has seen two productions in New York: the New York City Center Encores! staged concert version in May and the current Broadway revival at the St. James Theatre with 11 of the cast of 17 returning for the transfer.
There are many reasons for this possible interest in the second of the three Sondheim collaborations with bookwriter James Lapine: the plot based on five intertwined stories from the Brothers Grimm is suitable for both adults and children. It dramatizes familiar tales and then gives them each a new twist in its second act. It has juicy roles for a great many stars (six in the current production) as well as show stopping songs for all of the characters. It is both humorous as well as serious with a strong message by the end. It also depicts a world in adversity, something each audience can relate to.
The current Broadway production staged by Lear deBessonet, artistic director of New York City Center Encores! and founder of The Public Theater’s Public Works program at the Delacorte, may be the most definitive of them all. While the Encores! production at City Center in May seemed a bit unfinished with its approximately one week of rehearsals, the Broadway transfer has smoothed out those issues and turned into a true ensemble. The new leads have fit themselves so well into the production that with three substitutions at the performance under review it was still a very polished performance.
Inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Into the Woods combines several tales from the Brothers Grimm: The Baker and the Baker’s Wife who wish to undo a curse put on them by the Witch next door so that they can have a child, travel into the woods, a story taken from the beginning of the story of Rapunzel. Along their journey they meet Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk and his mother, Cinderella and her Prince, Little Red Ridinghood who later meets her Wolf, and the mother of the Giant who Jack slays. The first act ends optimistically with all the characters expected to live happily ever after, while the second act which is an original plot reveals that is not what happened. The most iconic song in the show seems to state the message: “Careful the things you say, Children will listen. Careful the things you do, Children will see. And learn.”
While the production at the St. James is still based on the Encores!’ staged concert with its limited scenery and its on-stage orchestra superbly conducted by Rob Berman, 15 years the music director of Encores!, it fits surprisingly well on the stage of this Broadway theater, using the same team as at New York City Center. David Rockwell’s minimal scenery with its 12 birch trees, miniature houses which are suspended from above, a huge moon suspended in the back behind the orchestra, and three steps of platforms allows for smooth transitions as the characters meet and part in the woods. Tyler Micoleau’s beautiful lighting bathes the stage in alternate solid colors, giving the stage different moods for each scene. Andrea Hood’s clever costumes are color coordinated for the various stories, visually linking the characters in each. The excellent sound design by Scott Lehrer joined by Alex Neumann allows for Sondheim’s witty and epigrammatic lyrics to be clearly heard in the large venue.
As the Witch who is initially gnarled and ugly and then becomes beautiful and sexy in a transformation, Patina Miller (Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Pippin) is forceful and commanding, weaving her way through all of the stories. Sara Bareilles, best known for her score for Waitress and for stepping into its leading role, turns the Baker’s Wife into a layered performance that has a great deal of nuance. As her husband, Jason Forbach (subbing for Brian d’Arcy James) shows a great deal of subtlety as the perplexed Baker. Phillipa Soo (Grammy Award for Hamilton where she created the role of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton) matures incrementally as Cinderella grows up through her experience of the world as not what she expected.
As her Prince, Gavin Creel (Tony Award for both Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hello, Dolly!) is amusingly vain and arrogant, while as the Wolf who eats Red Ridinghood he is wholly mischievous and sinister. As Rapunzel’s Prince, his brother, Joshua Henry (Tony nominations for his performances in The Scottsboro Boys, Violet and 2018’s Carousel) is hearty and energetic. Creel and Henry bring down the house with their two renditions of the song “Agony” in which they complain about their emotions for their respective girlfriends who are playing hard to get.
Subbing for Julia Lester as Red Ridinghood, Delphi Borich is a hilarious brat who is nothing but self-absorbed. Alex Joseph Grayson (subbing for Cole Thompson) conveys the innocence of youth as Jack causing all sorts of trouble by killing the unseen Giant. Nancy Opel is quite droll as Cinderella’s nasty and malicious Stepmother. Annie Golden (the original Squeaky Fromme in Sondheim’s Assassins) demonstrates her versatility as Cinderella’s deceased mother, Red Ridinghood’s Granny and the Giant’s mother.
David Patrick Kelly gets a great deal of mileage out of both the Narrator and the Mysterious Man who shows up at various times in the story, ultimately with a tale of his own. As Jack’s mother, Aymee Garcia turns up the mercenary, parsimonious qualities in her character. Kennedy Kanagawa manipulating James Ortiz’s puppet for Jack’s beloved cow Milky White is tremendously expressive. As Cinderella’s stepsisters, Ta’nika Gibson and Brooke Ishibashi, dressed in chic designer clothes, emote with panache in their few appearances.
Staging this complex show, Lear deBessonet has not only made it her own but solved all of the problems offered by this sophisticated and intricate musical. While the show is long at ten minutes less than three hours, it is always engrossing and entertaining. Aided by choreographer Lorin Latarro and the magnificent 15 piece orchestra, a highlight of all the Encores! productions, this is the perfect show for summer – and all year round. Catch before it is too late as the St. James Theatre production is only scheduled to run until August 21.
Into the Woods (extended through January 8, 2023)
The New York City Center Encores! Production
St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 888-985-9421 or visit http://www.intothewoodsbway.com
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one intermission