The In-Person Encores Review: Into The Woods
All those wishes and rhythms that make up Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, Into the Woods, are on full display at the New York City Center Encores‘ deliciously good production. As always, the series has brought together the best of the best, this time to usher forth a magnificently fun retelling of those classic fairytales, and what really happens after that seemingly final ‘Happily Ever After‘. Sondheim’s fairytale adventure is a forever joy, delivering a connected, clever piece of storytelling, that takes smart twists and turns with several well-known children’s bedtime stories, weaving them skillfully together into a magical musical about wishing and wanting, and what happens when you actually get what you dream for. All played out in the white birch woods of the majestic New York City Center, but also, deep inside the darkness of a child’s inner fear. “Lions and Tigers and Bears” are nowhere to be seen, but well-dressed wolves are certainly prowling around just waiting and wishing for a young girl to wander off the path.
Assembled so beautifully well in this Encores! production, the piece unwinds the magical and the haunting, creating a bit of wonderfully insightful escapism for us all to devour like a wolve in gramma’s clothing. Trouble lurks outside, in the air, and in our politics, as big and scary as a big, old giant falling from the skies, and all we can do is keep our eyes peeled so we don’t get crushed. Directed with a joyful acknowledgment of the fine cast collected, Lear DeBessonet (Public/Disney’s Hercules; Public’s Miss You Like Hell) executes the task most affectively and efficiently, finding its joy inside Sondheim’s smart words and melodies. The overlaying is magnificent, and although I thought the piece could use a bit more intrepid introspection into the darkness and sensuality of the lyrics, the production steadfastly unearths a straightforward innocence deep in the entangled darkness. There is a gentle clarity to the nostalgic magical moments of fear and frustration, yet “nice is different than good” one might add. But, all and all, it doesn’t hurt this production, mainly because it is full of wildly wonderful performances and equally fun comedic play unpacked and delivered with bravado by a phenomenal cast within a wonderful classic musical tale.
Under the excellent musical direction of Rob Berman, Encores! music director (Broadway’s Bright Star) and the ultra-fine Encores! Orchestra, the fine cast illuminates the tales within with precise gloriousness. They are all outstanding, particularly – and it’s not surprising as they are the best parts of Into The Woods – the incomparable Heather Headley (Broadway’s The Color Purple) as the witchiest of wonderful witches. She finds the fun in the fierceness, embracing the distortions and the transformation with glee and a solid well-founded sense of confidence. Her deformed initial appearance radiates menace and surprising humor, but she also finds power and deliciousness in her (not so magical) glam role switcheroo, courtesy of costume designer Andrea Hood (Public’s Twelfth Night), which only accentuates her star power and bravado. Her Act Two powerless motherly witch persona, desperate for attachment and love, finds a glorious edge in her ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Children Will Listen’, which are both equally emotional and utterly outstanding. It’s an exciting performance and is as playful as it is powerful.
Two other standouts that enhanced the whole is the always phenomenal Neil Patrick Harris (Broadway’s Hedwig) as the Baker, who unearths unknown humor and grief in every aspect of the storyline, while also holding tight to a perfect partner in Sara Bareilles (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar), who gives us a Baker’s Wife who is rich in maternal emotional depth, yet filled with sardonic charm. They both seem to carry a complex desperation to bear a child, while forever finding each other within the trouble and complexities. Bareilles is a gifted earthy singer, who always can find the authentic heart and deep need in her rich vocals, but when it comes to Sondheim, I wasn’t quite sure if she would be able to find her way into these woods. Most delightfully, she does, radiating an authentic fractious relationship from within, giving us a couple who can bicker, stray, and fight, and still be basically ok. That’s a powerful statement, one that should never be taken lightly.
This art, something that is explained to the wonderfully engaging Julia Lester (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series“) as the scene-stealing greedy Red Riding Hood, finds a simple truth in the dynamic and only secures their parenting relationship as more meaningful than first realized. Under that red cape, we find a young female force not to be toyed with, especially when her protective energy is unleashed. What’s missing a bit, and here is my only real complaint with the show in general, is her lusty attraction to the devilish wolf, played appealingly, but not seductively enough by Gavin Creel (Broadway’s She Loves Me; Hello, Dolly!) is never fully realized or examined. It’s an entertainingly festive scene that radiates pure theatrical pleasure in the acrobatics of the engagement, but little of the sexual energy that I think those two could have bitten into. Much like many moments in this sly sexual musical. When Creel dons the exquisite frock to play the Prince who captivatingly seduces the Baker’s Wife in ‘Any Moment’, he’s a joy to behold, but not so seductive. He says it’s for love, but we can tell it’s really for something quite different. And it isn’t exactly oozing carnalities in this production. Maybe for him, it’s ego-driven? External validation? Regardless, it’s fun, but not so complex or deep.
Another splendid moment is delivered by Denée Benton (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet) who runs away with the confused dynamics of a kind Cinderella with a prince complex chasing her through the woods. She stumbles most enchantingly on every entrance, and her charming phrasing of ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ does the job lovingly in Act One, but it is really in Act Two where she finds her footing, so to speak, unleashing the real girl within and the tenderness she can deliver. The same could be said for Harris, who plays it up in Act One, having the time of his life running through the woods, but it is in Act Two where we all of a sudden find ourselves tearing up as he struggles to find his place in this new world. It’s a tremendous achievement, and he works more magic than we ever expected to come our way.
The opposite could be said of Jack, played solidly by a very well-voiced Cole Thompson (just check out that video up above) who finds an innocence that almost makes us feel most fatherly in Act One. He’s trying so hard to grow up before our eyes. Yet, somehow he never really manages to expand on his take on the boy as the whole musical piece, overall, attempts to find greater maturity in Act Two. He is pricelessly funny though in his authentic honesty, particularly when he talks of his two best friends, a cow and a harp, to the exasperated sigh of his Mother, hilariously portrayed by the always excellent Ann Harada (CSC’s Pacific Overtures; “Schmigadoon”). Delivering a deliciously funny counterpoint to Jack, she, like almost every fine performer in this magical musical, gives us humor and charm that feels perfectly attuned to this straight-shooting sunny revival. She’s one of the gold egg treasures of the piece, not seen enough, but glistening when on stage.
As Into The Woods reacts to the culminating Giant dilemma set before them in Act Two, the Giant’s Wife, wonderfully voiced by the greatly loved Annie Golden (off-Broadway’s Broadway Bounty Hunter) – who also plays a most wonderful Grandmother and Cinderella’s Mother, brings about the crashing of everyone’s wish with a threatening stomp. Death, loss, and grief are grappled with, emphasized by two large not-so-effective giant shoes, stomping their way clumsily about. It’s one of the only weakly orchestrated visuals inside this inventive staging with puppets designed by James Ortiz (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), scenic design by David Rockwell (Broadway’s Local Hero), lighting by Tyler Micoleau (Broadway’s American Buffalo), and sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s The Music Man). The cow, Milky White, on the other hand, is tremendously well-executed (literally), beautifully brought to life (and death, and life again) by the inventive and tuned in Kennedy Kanagawa (Keen Co.’s Adventurephile) who, in a sharp moment of wit, assists the witch in such a wonderful moment of pure stage magic. This is what theatre is all about, as my friend Cheryl would say. That moment, and it shines bright thanks to that inventive fun formulation and conviction to the art of theatre.
Jordan Donica (Broadway’s My Fair Lady), who was first announced to play Rapunzel’s Prince opposite the very fine Shereen Pimentel (Broadway’s West Side Story) as Rapunzel, was unfortunately replaced on the night I attended. In the performance I saw, the prince was played, well, quite princely, by the wonderful Jason Forbach (Broadway’s Les Misérables). Stepping in to the part, he grandly delivered, most notably opposite Creel in the wonderfully silly “Agony”. The others within this strong cast; Ta’Nika Gibson (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud) as Lucinda, Albert Guerzon (Broadway’s Ghost) as Cinderella’s Father, Brooke Ishibashi (La Jolla’s To the Yellow House), Lauren Mitchell, an original Broadway cast member of Into the Woods, as Cinderella’s Stepmother, and the very sharp David Turner (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…) as the Steward, find their light and joy inside, delivering, like all the others, perfect renditions of this fine musical by Stephen Sondheim with a book by James Lapine.
Featuring the choreography by Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s Mrs. Doubtfire) within the intricate plots of both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, the direction sweetly explores the true-life consequences of the characters’ wishes and dreams, including all of the terrifying fears of separation and aloneness in a beautifully voiced production. Into the Woods finds its centeredness within the piece and unveils a new Encores! tradition; celebrating the community-building potential of iconic American musicals by ushering in a multigenerational community chorus of New York City seniors and public-school students for a big-lunged finale that highlights the many ways theater can connect us across time.
All the layers of moralistic familial conflict and connection unfold with subtle surprising care under the threat of a dead giant’s familial vengeance. Everyone is someone’s child, they tell us, and revenge can bounce along hurting more and more for eternity if we let it. Harris beautifully finds the heart of the piece, reminding us of what loss and love can feel like, as well as what family means in the end. Into the Woods does the job beautifully, reformulating and expanding so we can understand the idea that fairytales are often childhood fears played out to understand and resolve issues within, much like dreams and nightmares. When the long-lost father, played by David Patrick Kelly (Broadway’s Once), the same actor as the Narrator, keeps reappearing, it all makes sense, even when being mysterious. A happy ending after all, in a way, one that lives solidly in the real world and in our tear-filled eyes. It’s no surprise this beautifully crafted production found its way to New York City Center’s Encores! series a few years after it gloriously played in Central Park and also London’s Regent’s Park, and I was glad to be there to welcome it.