The Broadway Theatre Review: Into the Woods
I just had to see this show again. I wasn’t even planning on being in NYC very much this summer, or at all, to be honest, as my familial life is keeping me attached to being in Ontario, Canada these days. But I wasn’t going to miss my chance to see the Broadway transfer and revival of Into the Woods, even though I saw it when it first took to the stage a few months ago at New York City Center as part of the Encores! series. And even though they altered the artwork for the Broadway production a wee bit (and not for the better), I couldn’t just sit in Canada knowing that Stephen Sondheim’s wonderfully smart masterpiece was once again opening and taking us all most delightfully Into the Woods. And not surprisingly, but quite joyfully, it was just announced yesterday that the production was extended another eight weeks until October 16th. Now that is a bunch of wishes granted, I am sure.
The production, gloriously and hilariously helmed once again by Encores! Artistic Director Lear deBessonet (Public/Disney’s Hercules; Public’s Miss You Like Hell),, has only gotten better with the transfer, carrying over a number of its stellar cast members when it skipped its way down the wooden path to Broadway, including, most wonderfully, the amazing Sara Bareilles as The Baker’s Wife, Gavin Creel as the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince, and Julia Lester as Little Red Ridinghood (although when I saw the show the other night on Broadway, I saw the incredibly gifted Delphi Borich in the part). New cast members; Brian d’Arcy James as The Baker, Patina Miller as The Witch, Phillipa Soo as Cinderella, and Joshua Henry as Rapunzel’s Prince, happily joined in for the fun at Broadway’s St. James Theatre without missing a beat, finding further proof that this revival is one not to be missed.
I know that the extremely talented Cheyenne Jackson is scheduled to fill in for Creel starting July 24th, which only makes me want to return to the show one more time. I also didn’t get to see Brian d’Arcy James as The Baker the night I went, which is reason number two (like a really need more reasons to return – “I wish” I could, many times over). Jason Forbach (Broadway’s The Phantom...) stepped into The Baker role, and stood next to Bareilles looking perfect together. Forbach was made for the role next to her. Feeling like a true couple, he took his place most honorably from the first note sung. As did the wonderful Alex Joseph Grayson (Broadway’s Girl From the North Country) who was taking on the role of Jack the night I saw Into the Woods. All blessings, and no disappointments either.
And no surprise here. With sold-out crowds packing City Center back in May, a Broadway transfer and now extension were just plain inevitable, and all those wishes and dreams that filled the air and are at the core of this Sondheim classic were granted in abundance. A happily ever after I’m sure for those who haven’t ventured yet Into the Woods. This fairytale adventure is and continues to be a forever joy, delivering a connected, clever piece of magical storytelling, that takes smart off-the-path twists and turns with several well-known children’s bedtime stories, and one brand new one; The Baker and his Wife. Sondheim expertly weaves them together into a compelling musical about wishing and wanting, and if you stay for Act II, you learn that actions have consequences and that one must lead by example. We get the answer to what happens when you actually get what you wish for, and what one can learn from what they lost. All played out in and amongst the white birch woods on the stage of the St. James Theatre, surrounded by the wonderful Encores! orchestra, led by the musical director, Robert Berman (Broadway’s Bright Star).
Assembled so beautifully well, the piece unfolds most wisely and filled with the excitement of the whole theatre, uncovering every ounce of humor and joy inside every line and lyric at every turn on the winding path. It can’t be denied, that this directorial focus delivers a bit of wonderfully insightful escapism for us all to devour like a wolf in gramma’s clothing. We dive in most happily with this band of merry, talented artists, without any hesitation, feeling grateful to enter those dark woods with them most joyfully at our side. 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 stay together, united, and keep our eyes peeled so we don’t get crushed.
Directed with a joyful acknowledgment of the fine cast assembled and the impeccable piece of writing at her disposal, DeBessonet executes the task most effectively and efficiently, finding all of the humor and care inside Sondheim’s smart words and melodies. The overlaying is magnificent, and although I thought, as I did with the Encores! production, that the piece could use a bit more intrepid introspection into the darkness and sensuality of the lyrics, the production steadfastly unearths a straightforward jokie innocence that lives beautifully deep in the entangled darkness. All and all, this bypass doesn’t come even close to hurting this production, mainly because it is full of wildly wonderful performances having a fun comedic playtime with every scene and scenario, unpacking and delivering with gusto, intelligence, and bravado.
The fine cast members assembled are all completely outstanding, particularly Bareilles (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar) as The Baker’s Wife. The part is one of the richest in the lot, yet she finds her way to unpack a delicate rich emotional depth that is also filled with sardonic charm and touching elegance. It’s a truly mesmerizing performance, one that will go down in the history books, seamlessly matched by the wonderful understudy, Forbach as The Baker, or should I say The Baker’s Wife’s Husband. Together, they carry a complex and compelling attachment to one another, and a tender desperation to have a child, feeling more true and honest than when I saw it with Neil Patrick Harris at City Center (albeit he was absolutely hilarious in the part, especially since he too was a last-minute replacement to the always busy Christian Borle). The two (very talented) partners in their quest for a child radiate an authentic fractious relationship from within, giving us an authentic couple who can love, bicker, stray, and fight, and still be basically ok. That’s a powerful statement, one that should never be taken lightly.
With Patina Miller (Broadway’s Pippin), I wasn’t when walking into the theatre as sure-footed about her as the witchiest of wonderful witches as I was when I saw the incomparable Heather Headley (Broadway’s The Color Purple) at City Center, but the fun in the fierceness is on full display here on Broadway. She owns the part, inside every twist and turn, embracing the distortions and the transformation with glee and a solid well-founded sense of confidence and expertise. Her deformed initial appearance radiates menace and surprising humor, but she also finds power and deliciousness in her (not so magical) glamorous transformation, courtesy of costume designer Andrea Hood (Public’s Twelfth Night). Her Act Two powerless-witch persona, desperate for maternal attachment and love, delivers a gloriously smart edge in her ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Children Will Listen’, which are seamlessly emotional, dynamic, and utterly outstanding. It’s an exciting edgy performance, as playful as it is powerful.
This time around the woods, I was gifted with the chance of seeing the talented Delphi Borich in the scene-stealing part of Little Red Ridinghood. At City Center, and on Broadway, the part is typically portrayed by the engaging Julia Lester (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series“) who delivers well as the greedy red-caped young lady who learns a lot about the world inside the woods. But Borich (“WeCrashed“) dutifully unpacks a whole bunch more in her excitingly clever portrayal of that young lady. Under her blood-red cape, we discover, not only a young female force that can not be toyed with, but a sharper edge to her own brand of cleverness. I still maintain that what’s missing in this revival is her overall lusty attraction to the devilish wolf, played appealingly, but not seductively enough by Gavin Creel (Broadway’s She Loves Me; Hello, Dolly!), but I think I’m holding on to something I should let go of. Although that edge that I love is more here with Borich on Broadway than it ever was at City Center.
When Creel joyfully dons his exquisite frock to play the Prince, alongside the wonderful new addition, Joshua Henry (Broadway’s Carousel) as Rapunzel’s gallant Prince, the energy of that “Agony” is undeniable. It unleashes all the fun and pleasure that one could hope for from these two, and more. The same could be said for the moment in the woods when Creel’s Prince captivatingly seduces The Baker’s Wife in “Any Moment“. Both of them are a joy to behold, even though Creel doesn’t bring forth much of a seductive edge (I’d love to see what Jackson brings). He says it’s for love, but we can tell it’s really, just maybe, only about his ego and his narcissism. But who, in the end, is complaining? Especially as we watch the spectacular Bareilles lead us out with her “Moments in the Woods“. Probably the best moment in the whole show. One twitter writer stated: “audience members openly gasping…” to her performance. It wasn’t me, but it could have been.
One more splendid moment in a forest of so many is the one delivered by the utterly fabulous Phillipa Soo (Broadway’s Hamilton; Public’s Suffs), who beautifully runs away with the confused dynamics of a kind and loving Cinderella, with a handsome prince complex chasing her through the woods. She excels in the part, stumbling as enchantingly as possible on every entrance (albeit one, most hilariously). She doesn’t stubble a bit with her charming phrasing of “On the Steps of the Palace” in Act One, but it is really in Act Two where she finds her solid footing, so to speak, unleashing an honestly wonderful and tender woman who cares deeply about all those around her. The same could be said for Forbach, 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 alone in the paternal woods. It’s a tremendous achievement, and he works more magic than we ever expected to come our way. Bravo.
I felt something of the opposite when reviewing the very well-voiced Cole Thompson who played Jack at City Center, and is now on Broadway. But with his understudy, Alex Joseph Grayson, I found the Jack I had been always hoping to hear from. Grayson is just marvelous in the part, unearthing an innocence in Act One, and then expanding and growing up before our very eyes, while never missing the joke at the core. He is pricelessly funny throughout (as is basically everyone in this cast) in his honesty and care, particularly when he talks of his two best friends; a cow and a harp, to the exasperation of his Mother, hilariously portrayed by very engaging Aymee Garcia (Broadway’s Shrek). She delivers a deliciously funny counterpoint to this Jack, giving us a level of humor and charm that feels perfectly attuned to and welcomed by this straight-shooting funny and festive revival.
Once, back in the day, Into the Woods played out its complex fairytale on the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theatre stage in Central Park. It was glorious, although not as wonderful as the production we have before us on Broadway. I bring that production up only because I knew one person who watched Act One and then promptly left the theatre, thinking, well, wasn’t that a fun one-act musical, without realizing the art and the depth of this musical is really rooted, like those tall beanstalks that Jack climbs up into the land of the Giants, in Act Two, when everyone must learn how to react to one another with the culminating Giant dilemma set before them. This is where the power of the musical lives, and I have always felt bad for that soul who didn’t know about Act Two. Not just for the fact that each song in that second act is brilliant and life-changing, but because this is where all things that matter are said and sung about, most beautifully. This is where the lessons are learned, about love, loss, and connection.
It is in that twisted vine, that we see the Giant’s Wife, wonderfully voiced by the greatly loved Annie Golden (“Hair“; off-Broadway’s Broadway Bounty Hunter) – who most wonderfully also plays the Grandmother to Little Red Ridinghood and Cinderella’s tree-bound Mother, bringing about the crushing of everyone’s wish and world with a threatening stomp. Death, loss, and grief are brought forth and grappled with, emphasized by two large giant shoes, designed by James Ortiz (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), stomping their way clumsily about a set designed simply and elegantly by David Rockwell (Broadway’s Tootsie), with subtle lighting by Tyler Micoleau (Broadway’s American Buffalo), and a solid sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s The Music Man). The outcome depends on just how willingly each of these characters is able to turn against one another, ushering forth one of the most brilliant songs of blame in this musical, the impressively smart “Your Fault.” Sondheim outdid himself there.
Setting aside those shoes, the cow, Milky White is quite possibly the true and most beautifully well-executed star of the show, bringing heart and care to the audience in the form of a cow puppet with white ribs and some tenderly sad eyes. Beautifully brought to life (and death, and life again) by the inventive and tuned-in Kennedy Kanagawa (Keen Co.’s Adventurephile), Milky White and his handler, in a sharp moment of wit, assist the witch, and the production as a whole, in such wonderful moments of pure stage magic. This is what theatre is all about, as my friend Cheryl would say. That moment when art and creativity shine bright thanks to some inventive fun and a strong conviction for the art and wonder of theatre.
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) as Florinda, Nancy Opel (Broadway’s Honeymoon in Vegas; off-Broadway’s Curvy Widow), as Cinderella’s Stepmother, and the very sharp David Turner (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…) as the Steward, find their light, humor, and joy inside every moment in the woods. They deliver, like all the others, perfect renditions of this fine musical by Stephen Sondheim (music/lyrics) and James Lapine (book) and add layers and layers of comic joy throughout.
Featuring the strong intuitive choreography by Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s Mrs. Doubtfire) within the intricate plots of both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, the direction and flow sweetly explore the true-life consequences of the characters’ wishes and dreams when they are granted. Including all of the terrifying fears of separation and aloneness that could exist inside the strong lyrics and book of this beautifully voiced revival. Into the Woods expertly uncovers its clever centeredness, unpacking all the layers of moralistic familial conflict and connection that unfolds, with a subtle surprising care. All under the threat of a dead giant’s familial vengeance. Everyone is someone’s child, they tell us, and revenge can bounce along from one child to another, creating generational trauma that will end up hurting more and more for eternity if we let it.
Forbach, the understudy for James, as The Baker, is truly a gem, beautifully finding the emotional heart of the piece within his loss and aloneness. He reminds us what loss and love can feel like, as complicated as it is, and ultimately, what family, any kind of family, truly means in the end. The second Broadway revival of Into the Woods does the job magnificently, even better than when this show first ventured into the woods in May at City Center. When the mysterious man/long-lost father, played by David Patrick Kelly (Broadway’s Once) – the same actor as the Narrator, keeps reappearing, the playfulness of this production all makes sense. It truly is a happily ever after for us all, with a solidly magnificent cast reviving this show on Broadway. It’s a production that will live solidly in our hearts, our souls, and our smiles for a long time to come. I’m just excited to see who else might come along to venture Into the Woods before this just-extended show eventually closes. So don’t wait. Skip, or maybe run to the box office and get your tickets before this show ends its (extended) limited run. You don’t want to miss these woods for anything.