At the performance of the Encores! Into the Woods I attended, a dark turn in Act II was met by a smattering of gasps. It was a genuinely shocking moment, not because of the plot twist, but because every other patron in my immediate vicinity was either conducting the performance with their chins, mouthing the lyrics, or giving knowing nods of approval when a joke landed with perfect timing. If you were to take a poll of the City Center audiences during this two-week run, I would venture to guess nearly every one of them has gone Into the Woods at some point in their lives — whether they wore out the DVD of the original Broadway production or nobly served their parental duty to a child playing the back half of Milky White in the spring musical. Its ubiquity is what made the property initially seem like an odd choice for a series noted for "unearthing lesser-known gems," to quote new Encores! Artistic Director Lear deBessonet. And yet, deBessonet can feel vindicated with her near-perfect production — a clear-eyed rendering that unearths gems even the greatest Into the Woods aficionados have forgotten to look for.
It goes to show that Into the Woods does not need any sweepingly original theatrical concept to knock off the dust (set designer David Rockwell creates a minimalist land of make-believe out of tree trunks, a moonlit sky, and a trio of adorable miniature houses dangling above the stage to demarcate households). Theatricality is baked into James Lapine and the Stephen Sondheim's accordion of overlapping fairy tales and deBessonet trusts in that, gilding no lilies as her characters' one-dimensional storybook morals are gradually replaced by the shadowy ambiguity of real life. Considering this dour trajectory, it's worth noting that the sardonic humor of real life also comes through in this comedically impeccable production, thanks to a dream cast that delivers on its promise.
At the center we have the Baker (Neil Patrick Harris, ornamenting his timid character with delightful bits of physical comedy) and his wife (Sara Bareilles, bringing her dry humor and supple vocals to the part). In order to conceive a child, they must reverse a spell that was cast on the Baker's long-lost father by the Witch next door (the phenomenal Heather Headley, both threatening and disarming). The pair's search through the woods for four magical ingredients brings them into contact with the rest of our fairytale characters: Little Red Riding Hood (Julia Lester giving one of the funniest and most thoughtful performances of the role I've seen), Cinderella (the always glorious Denée Benton), Rapunzel (Shereen Pimentel, displaying her flawless soprano), and Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame (a winsome performance from Cole Thompson).
Jack, of course, is accompanied by his mother (the indelibly droll Ann Harada) and his best friend-slash-pet Milky White, given a definitive performance by Kennedy Kanagawa (fabulous puppet design by James Ortiz). Annie Golden, a consummate performer, appears as Little Red's grandmother, Cinderella's mother, and the Giant's wife. And then we have our wolves, princes, and giants who lure our wandering heroes down paths that can seem as romantic and beautiful as they are dark and slimy. Gavin Creel does double duty as Little Red's Wolf and Cinderella's Prince, singing a jaunty "Hello, Little Girl" and a perfectly melodramatic "Agony," opposite (at my performance) understudy Jason Forbach as Rapunzel's Prince (costume designer Andrea Hood saves her brightest shocks of color for these charming princes). The perfectly cast David Patrick Kelly, meanwhile, narrates the proceedings (or the majority of them), weaving in and out of the story as the riddle-spouting Mysterious Man.
For a concert production with such a limited rehearsal period, each character is remarkably well-drawn, with every beat accounted for in Sondheim's artfully crafted songs that teach as much about life as they do about musical-theater writing. Benton's "On the Steps of the Palace" reveals the mind of a young girl not quite ready to embrace her own agency; Lester's "I Know Things Now" captures the bitter aftertaste of disillusionment that comes with a child's first sip of wisdom; Thompson's "Giants in the Sky" takes us on a wondrous journey of youthful possibility; and Bareilles's "Moments in the Woods" is a grounded contemplation on the sad yet beautiful choices that come with adulthood.
Themes of parenthood always take center stage in production's of Into the Woods, and this one is no different — Headley embodying a mother's fear and devastation in the pleading "Stay With Me" and her implacable rendition of "Last Midnight". DeBessonet's production, however, subtly presses on the loneliness the comes when these guiding hands "leave you halfway through wood" — a particularly looming feeling at this moment in history. Yes, the love of a parent is significant, but the support of a village is what reverberates throughout the theater in "No One Is Alone" and the final reprise of "Children Will Listen," for which deBessonet fills the aisles with 70 youth and senior community members (very reminiscent of the aesthetic she brings to her Public Works program at the Delacorte Theater every summer). Does it make for the most manicured finale? Absolutely not. But the superpower of this production is its capacity to see the forest for the trees. Somewhere, Sondheim is smiling.