When Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, premiered on Broadway in 1987, it won three of that season’s top Tony Awards. When Off-Broadway’s New York City Center staged a limited engagement of it this Spring, from May 4–15, as part of its Encores! series, it was announced less than two weeks after closing that the sold-out critically acclaimed production would transfer to Broadway’s St. James Theatre. It has, and if anyone has any doubt that this spectacular revival could conceivably live up to all the kudos and hype, let me assure you it does, and then some.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, the complex, inventive, and insightful musical intertwines the plots and characters from the iconic 19th-century fairytales by the Brothers Grimm – “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk ” – to explore such weighty themes as the journey of life, the parent-child relationship, the quest for happily ever after, the challenges, consequences, dangers, and death everyone must face, and the need to support each other to get through it all.
The narrative is centered on the struggles of the childless Baker and his Wife, cursed by a Witch who was herself cursed, to bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper of gold, so she can break the spells, they can start a family, and she can revert back to the woman she once was. Along the way and through the woods, they encounter an array of figures from the popular fables; things eventually go right, and they’re all on the path to a happy ending by the close of Act I – until things turn very, very wrong in Act II.
Brilliantly helmed by Encores!’ new Artistic Director Lear deBessonet and choreographed with high energy by Lorin Latarro, the current production not only captures the characters’ travails and flaws, but especially accentuates the hilarious foibles of their personalities and behavior, in a fast-paced show that is at once highly observant and wildly entertaining for every single second of its nearly three-hour running time. And it’s delivered by a consistently superb company that masters to perfection the signature intricacies of Sondheim’s demanding score (under the exacting music direction of Rob Berman), while expressively embodying the joy, pain, and ambivalence inherent in their roles, and fully embracing the comedic elements that keep the audience howling with laughter and recognition.
Julia Lester, in a blockbuster Broadway debut as Little Red Ridinghood, exudes all the snarky outspoken defiance of youth, while Patina Miller, in a stellar return to the Broadway stage, makes for a ferocious Witch, threatening and cackling, demanding her dues and noting the equivocation of the others and her own honesty in the “Last Midnight” (“You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice . . . I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right.”). Phillipa Soo brings a gentle determination to Cinderella, who’s unaccustomed to wearing such finery as a gown and heeled slippers, and, as a result, consummately executes a series of sidesplitting pratfalls “On the Steps of the Palace.”
As the Baker’s Wife, Sara Bareilles is at first driven and feisty, later unhappy and vulnerable, aiding then forsaking her husband for “Moments in the Woods” with Cinderella’s wandering Prince. He is played by the uproarious Gavin Creel with over-the-top laugh-out-loud egomania, posing, seducing, and competing with Rapunzel’s Prince (the rich and resonant Joshua Henry) over which one is more tortured by the women they’re pursuing in the stand-out song-and-dance “Agony.” Creel also doubles as the Wolf, with whom the Prince shares the trait of a ravenous appetite, gleefully sprinkling salt on Red Ridinghood’s arm in preparation for eating her.
And so it is with each and every member of the large cast, turning in glorious performances brimming with artful humor and the best and worst of humanity, from David Patrick Kelly as the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, who comment on the story and know more than the characters, Annie Golden as voice of the thunderous, vengeful, and murderous Giant, and the irresistible Kennedy Kanagawa as Milky White, who operates the life-sized puppet (designed by James Ortiz) and enacts the thoughts and feelings of the lovable sensitive cow, eliciting audible sighs from the audience. On the date I attended, two understudies also appeared in leading roles – Jason Forbach, filling in for Brian D’Arcy James as the Baker, and Alex Joseph Grayson subbing for Cole Thompson as the young Jack – both of whom turned in Broadway-quality star-making performances.
Rounding out the extraordinary company, without a weak link among them, are Aymee Garcia as Jack’s Mother, Ta’Nika Gibson as Lucinda, Albert Guerzon as Cinderella’s Father, Brooke Ishibashi as Florinda, Nancy Opel as Cinderella’s Stepmother, David Turner as the Steward, and Alysia Velez as Rapunzel, along with understudies Delphi Borich, Felicia Curry, Paul Kreppel, Mary Kate Moore, Cameron Johnson, Diane Phelan, and Lucia Spina. The cast is supported by a stunning artistic design, with character-defining costumes by Andrea Hood and hair, wig, and makeup by Cookie Jordan, evocative sound by Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann, and colorful lighting by Tyler Micoleau that sets the times and enhances the moods. And David Rockwell’s beautifully efficient scenic design shifts effortlessly from the Baker’s modest house, Rapunzel’s tower, and the steps of the royal palace to the depths of the forest, with the lowering of a full moon and the trunks of birch trees, without delaying or distracting from the actors or the top-notch orchestra on stage behind them.
The Encores! production of Into the Woods reminds us why stars are STARS, Sondheim is SONDHEIM, and Broadway is BROADWAY. It’s the best of everything and sets the gold standard for musical theater. Get your tickets now, before it’s too late.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes, including an intermission.
Into the Woods plays through Sunday, January 8, 2023, at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $79-349, plus fees), go online. Everyone seated in the first two rows must wear a mask.