“Into The Woods,” the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine currently back on Broadway in a wonderfully cast concert staging directed by Lear deBessonet, has always reminded me of the Fractured Fairy Tales on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle animated TV series – comically irreverent takes on the world’s most familiar fables. That’s not all the musical has on offer, of course. There are some gorgeous songs with deliciously witty lyrics. There are also all the meant-to-be-profound moral lessons for grown-ups attached to the cleverly interconnected stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel – about how actions have consequences (“wishes come true, not free”), and how “happily” isn’t “ever after” in the real world (or at least certainly not in Act II.)
But I suspect it’s the universal familiarity of the characters that has made “Into The Woods” one of Sondheim’s most popular and frequently produced musicals.
There are now even “junior” and “senior” versions of the show, tailored specifically for casts comprised, respectively, of children (for productions in schools, day care centers) and of the elderly (in nursing homes, senior citizen centers.) The current production at the St. James is the first on Broadway in twenty years, but I’ve seen more recent professional productions in Central Park (the first Sondheim ever presented at the Public Theater’s “Shakespeare in the Park.”) and Off Broadway by the Fiasco Theater Company, and there was a 2014 star-studded movie adaptation of the musical for Disney directed by Rob Marshall.
That movie is currently streaming to Disney+ subscribers for free, and on other platforms for $3.99. This is exactly one percent of the official top ticket price for the current Broadway production: $399. It seems quixotic to argue against a specific Broadway show because of its ticket prices, and indeed feels futile to rail against Broadway’s high prices at all (although some theater veterans continue to do so). But the inflated prices felt a little more galling here, because the production is a Broadway transfer after a two-week run in May as part of New York City Center’s Encores! concert series, which was created in 1994 to offer low-priced, no-frills, short-run revivals of “hidden gems” (mostly obscure shows that generally had great scores and awful books.). In a City Center “Inside the Revival” video in April, 2021, Lear deBessonet, the new artistic director of Encores!, explained how “Into The Woods” fit into her new conception of the concert series: “We’re not changing the show itself; we’re not changing the script, we’re not doing a new adaptation. What’s new is that we’re presenting this production through the lens of community and in the spirit of starting a new annual tradition [each season]…of one great community celebration of an iconic musical.” The new tradition, she said, is intended to reflect the origins of City Center, which was founded by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as “a people’s theater.”
I have no doubt about deBessonet’s sincerity and commitment to community; she has been a fabulous steward of the Public Works productions at the Delacorte, which cast dozens of amateur performers from neighborhood organizations throughout the city. But it was hard for me to discern at first what exactly she could mean by “the lens of community” in the Broadway run of “Into the Woods.”
There are two other advantages, besides the price, of staying home. 2. The lyrics are fully accessible via closed captioning in the film. That doesn’t exist (yet?) in the current stage production. 3. When you’re at home watching the movie, you are not forced to sit next to people no longer required to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination during a pandemic. That COVID-19 is still virulent is evident not just in newspaper headlines (New York Times: The Latest Covid Surge) but onstage: At the performance I saw of “Into the Woods,” one of the principal roles was portrayed by an understudy, not an unusual occurrence.
Yes, this is a problem for almost all the shows on Broadway. But it was “Into The Woods” that drew me back to the theater exactly a month after I had contracted COVID-19. (My return wasn’t exactly hastened by my belief, based on a message I received from a Covid Alert app, that I was infected after sitting in a theater next to someone who tested positive.)
That month away probably affected my perspective. “Into the Woods” has always struck me as too long, and too busy; it shouldn’t be surprising then that I had even less patience this time around for its running time of two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission.)
On the other hand, my time away might have helped me grasp the thunderous reaction to the show by much of the audience, who were surely primed both out of affection for Sondheim, who died eight months ago, and as an affirmation of the pleasure and power of gathering in person.
If the timing of this production enhances its enchantment, the appeal is undeniable. That is largely because of the cast, who bring out the fractured fairy tale humor that I most appreciate about the show while delivering the songs as beautifully as I’ve ever heard them.
Eleven of the 18 performers are holdovers from the run at City Center. Some of the replacements, especially Patina Miller, Brian d’Arcy James, and Phillipa Soo, give the most memorable performances, and wind up feeling like the heart of the show. That’s in part because their characters are so central. Patina Miller is a powerhouse witch, who delivers some scorching show-stoppers, most notably “The Last Midnight.” Brian d’Arcy James is as effective in comedy as in drama, in dialogue and in song, and the character he portrays, the baker, bonds with all the others. The story of the baker and his wife (portrayed by Sara Bareilles) is the one fable created by Lapine and Sondheim. The Bakers (if I may call them that) are in all manner a modern couple, planning meticulously to have a child after they’ve been informed it’s not possible – except they’re surrounded by witches and princesses and giants, and so, rather than seeking IVF treatments, they gather together all the ingredients for the potion required by the witch, who had cursed them to be barren. Their main activity in Act I is essentially a scavenger hunt, and ties together all the classic folktales into a convoluted interconnected plot. The witch commands that they acquire
a cow as white as milk (acquired from Jack,portrayed by Cole Thompson, who’s a persuasive and adorable dolt ), to which they would feed
a cape as red as blood (from newcomer Julia Lester as hilariously deadpan menacing Little Red Ridinghood)
hair as yellow as corn (from golden-voiced Alysia Velez as Rapunzel)
a slipper as pure as gold (from exquisite Phillipa Soo as Cinderella.)
Each of the actors portraying these mythical figures are splendid, right down to Milky White the cow, who I suppose should be credited to puppet designer James Ortiz and puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa, but the oversized puppet herself is so expressive (despite having a skeletal body and immobile facial muscles) that she deserves her Equity card. It doesn’t hurt that Milky White is the subject of one of Sondheim’s all-time cleverest lines, sung by Aymee Garcia as Jack’s Mother, urging her son to get out there and sell the cow, which is past its prime: “Son, we’ve no time to sit and dither, while her withers wither with her.”
Following Encores! tradition, the orchestra is on stage, pushing the actors downstage. Costumes seem like afterthoughts, and scenery is minimal: David Rockwell’s set is comprised of an abstract arrangement of bare and anemic looking tree trunks, along with three small dollhouses spaced out along the stage and suspended in mid-air, meant to represent the homes, respectively, of Cinderella, the Baker, and Jack. I wasn’t crazy either about the two giant ladies’ pumps to represent the giant’s avenging widow.
The focus is perforce on the actors, and they all come through, even (especially?) the understudies. The director certainly deserves credit for the funny stage business throughout the show. I loved the way Jason Forbach , who was portraying the wolf (a role normally assigned to Gavin Creel), discretely sprinkled from a saltshaker on the arm of Little Red Riding Hood while idly talking to her (and singing, soliloquy-like: “There’s no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.”)
Near the end of “Into the Woods,” Brian d’Arcy James and Phillipa Soo sing “No One Is Alone” as a duet, followed by two more pairs singing the same song. It’s a melodic tune, and it was sung gloriously. I was surprised that the lyrics were deeper than I remembered them. They’re not just reassuring, or uplifting; they’re saying that everybody lives in a community, and that’s why your actions matter more than just to yourself. It’s such a necessary thing to hear these days. But that’s probably not why it made me cry.
Into The Woods
St. James Theater through August 21. Update: Extended to October 16, 2022. 2nd update: Extended to January 8, 2023.
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $79 to $399
Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Andrea Hood; Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann; Puppet Design by James Ortiz; Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan; Make-Up Design by Cookie Jordan
Cast: Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker, Patina Miller as the Witch, Phillipa Soo as Cinderella, Joshua Henry as Rapunzel’s Prince, Aymee Garcia as Jack’s Mother, Ta’Nika Gibson as Lucinda, Annie Golden as Cinderella’s Mother/Grandmother/Giant’s Wife, Albert Guerzon as Cinderella’s Father, Brooke Ishibashi as Florinda, Kennedy Kanagawa as Milky White, David Patrick Kelly as the Narrator/Mysterious Man, Julia Lester as Little Red Riding Hood, Nancy Opel as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Cole Thompson as Jack, David Turner as the Steward, Alysia Velez as Rapunzel. With Delphi Borich, Felicia Curry, Jason Forbach, Alex Joseph Grayson, Cameron Johnson, Paul Kreppel, Mary Kate Moore, Diane Phelan, and Lucia Spina as understudies.
photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade