Review: Into the Woods Delivers Perfection in an Imperfect World
Lear deBessonet's concert production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fairytale musical has transferred to Broadway's St. James Theatre.
Who would have thought back in 1987 that in 35 years we'd be giving fairy tale characters entrance applause fit for rock stars? The enthusiasm may be getting an assist from Broadway's critical mass of uninspired biomusicals, movie adaptations, and properties that trade on twee aphorisms-turned-marketing hashtags. But regardless of the environment that helped break the evil spell, Lear deBessonet seems to have awoken audiences from the catatonic shrug they've been giving Into The Woods since it was bested at the Tonys by megamusical Phantom of the Opera all those decades ago.
The show has always had its acolytes — largely young actors who can show off their developing tenors with Jack's "Giants in the Sky" or practice their character work with Little Red's "I Know Things Now." But deBessonet's near-perfect mounting at New York City Center Encores! this past May showed that there is more to this musical than just fodder for theater kids. In the two months since the concert production, we've been holding our collective breath to see if it was just one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments, facilitated by an adrenaline-fueled cast of stars and a wave of emotion following Stephen Sondheim's passing — or if that magic could indeed be pocketed for a longer Broadway run. Now that it's officially on its feet at the St. James Theatre, I would like to submit Into the Woods as proof to this skeptical industry that there is a not-so-far-off kingdom where the pinnacle of art meets the pinnacle of entertainment.
For a story about the disintegration of childhood innocence and life's painful ambiguities, Into the Woods is the funniest show running on Broadway (and that includes both of the musicals that are literally about comedians). As I said in my Encores! review, the greatest pitfall of Into the Woods is an auteur who tries to meet the show profundity for profundity. Fortunately, the few extra weeks of rehearsal time have not sparked any extraneous fussing or overthinking (even David Rockwell's sets remain charmingly demure). The revival has held on to its foundational confidence in James Lapine and Sondheim's text, while allowing its actors to gleefully play in their own sandboxes. And if there were ever a cast to trust, it's this one.
Every single actor on Into the Woods's impressively deep bench brings trademark gifts to their roles while also conveying an incredible cohesiveness within the arc of the show's two parallel acts. While both halves can be summed up as interwoven tales of wishing, Act 1 gives us the childhood version — a fairytale world that promises a classic happily ever after — while Act 2 ushers us into murky adulthood where both the wish and its fulfillment look a bit different (Tyler Micoleau lights these tonal shifts).
At the center of the story are the Baker and Baker's Wife (Brian d'Arcy James, newly joining the cast, and Sara Bareilles, reprising her City Center performance), who must undo a curse placed on them by the Witch next door (Patina Miller, also a new addition) in order to have the child that will complete their nuclear family. Bareilles's comedic timing is impeccable as the savvy but tiptoeing spouse to James's bumbling-yet-sweet Baker, and she perfectly balances it with deep introspection in her Act 2 solo "Moments in the Woods" — a postmortem on a failed tryst that also questions the concepts of duty and sacrifice. She is a new mother with a gentle nature and a bundle of unanswered questions, and not until this production did I appreciate how these invisible threads tie her to our antiheroic Witch — a jaded parent toughened by experience, who, in Miller's formidable hands earns every declarative statement she sings in "Last Midnight."
Elsewhere in the woods, we see our other clumsy storybook characters' simple desires grow increasingly complex as well. Phillipa Soo, as the show's new Cinderella, brushes against the complications to come in her beautifully sung "On the Steps of the Palace," performed amid a delightfully campy rendering of a princess who can't yet digest that she might not want the prince that comes with the ball. Julia Lester, returning as Little Red, makes for a hilariously macabre little girl with outsize confidence and curiosity that are on a collision course with everything she's been taught about rules and regulations (her "I Know Things Now" is perfection, as are her reactions to Gavin Creel's sprightly version of the Wolf's song, "Hello, Little Girl").
Then there's her fellow youngster Jack (Cole Thompson), whose dopey naivete and love for his amusingly emotive pet cow Milky White (played by the excellent Cameron Johnson at my performance in lieu of the usually showstopping Kennedy Kanagawa) leads him on a path toward both the light and dark sides of independence (Thompson's awestruck "Giants in the Sky" is lovely). And while they don't go on quite as profound a journey, I can't overlook our princes Joshua Henry (wooing Rapunzel with his Billy Bigelow baritone) and Gavin Creel (a silky-smooth tenor for Cinderella), who, in their ketchup- and mustard-colored finery (costumes by Andrea Hood), display a comedic partnership that nearly matches their flawless vocals.
Into the Woods is often accused of precious moralizing (I can just hear readers calling hypocrisy on the shots fired at "twee aphorisms"). But a clear-eyed production like the one now onstage at the St. James perfectly encapsulates how it should be just the opposite. As Bareilles belts out a celebratory "Now I understand!" at the end of "Moments in the Woods," we sit back and wonder if she really does, or what further revelations a third act might have brought her. As James mournfully sings "All the children…All the giants…" at the end of "No More" (a master class in restraint), we're left with the task of deciphering that heartbreaking lyrical inkblot for ourselves. It is a buffet of questions, not answers. And if that sounds like your kind of feast, you will leave nourished and sated, with a doggie bag full of ands. Or is it ors?