|INTO THE WOODS|
If you are having any second thoughts about attending the superstar-studded production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical “Into the Woods,” now at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, banish them. The challenges of bringing such a complex piece to full-bodied life have been handled with remarkable aplomb by director Lear deBessonnet and her top-notch cast and creative team
First produced on Broadway in 1987, “Into the Woods” is sort of two shows in one: the longish first act presents a host of familiar fairy tale characters, including Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, in a mashed-up story with heavily comic overtones and an expected happy ending. The show’s second, darker (and far superior) second act focuses on the consequences of these characters (and others) getting what they wished for. It’s a morality tale in every sense of the word.
At the show’s emotional center is the story of the hapless baker and his headstrong wife (both nameless), whose quest to have a child motivates both acts. Here, the brilliant Sara Bareilles effortlessly captures the wry comedy needed for the female role, as well as providing (as expected) consistently strong vocals, both of which come together stunningly in “Moments in the Woods.”
Meanwhile, the superb Brian D’Arcy James crafts a moving portrait of the Baker, a once-timid man who finally finds his inner strength (especially as he takes center stage and delivers a remarkable “No More” alongside the excellent David Patrick Kelly). By the show’s end, he truly becomes a man worthy of the title “father.”
Equally impressive, Patina Miller transforms the Witch, a traditional symbol of evil, into a figure of sympathy – a woman so defined by sorrow, anger and fear that we not only understand all her actions – as severe as some can be – but we almost condone them. A dazzling singer, she commands the stage with ease during her solos “Children Will Listen” and “Last Midnight.”
The “supporting cast” is equally flawless, most notably, the divine Philippa Soo as a glimmering Cinderella; the scene-stealing Julia Lester as the fearless Red Riding Hood; and Kennedy Kanagaway, who brings the silent cow Milky White (superbly created by puppet designer James Ortiz) to literal full-bodied life.
Kudos as well to the wonderful Jason Forbach, subbing magnificently at my performance for Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, two characters of enormous vanity. (Creel’s roles will be played by Broadway favorite Cheyenne Jackson from July 24-August 5.)
The show’s production benefits as well from Lorin Latarro’s charming choreography, David Rockwell’s minimalist but very effective set design, and Andrea Hood’s magnificent costumes. (If they sold copies of Miller’s purple pants suit or Soo’s ballgown at the merchandise stand, the show could make even more money.)
Finally, one simply cannot diminish the importance of music director Rob Berman and the impeccable onstage orchestra, who do full justice to Sondheim’s dazzling, complicated score, ranging from “Giants in the Sky” to “The Steps of the Palace” to “No One is Alone,” each song its own miniplay.
I’ve shared the journey of this show and followed its path many times, but never with such satisfaction. So do what you can to catch this incredible production. (But eat first, since it runs a full three hours!)
By Brian Scott Lipton
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St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036