Extended Again thru September 4th

By Samuel L. Leiter . . . 

There’s something odd going on at the St. James Theatre, where the newest revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine 1987 fairytale musical, Into the Woods opened this week. No sooner does the curtain rise on the company in tableau than the audience bursts into shouts and applause as if it were joyously welcoming back the first show since Broadway shut down in March 2020. Of course, Broadway, albeit haltingly, has been back for the better part of a year; still, the enthusiasm expressed before even a single note is sung suggests that the genie is only now being let out of the bottle. 

Sara Bareilles, Brian d’Arcy James

While there are many first-rate Broadway performers on hand (although one of the best known, Brian d’Arcy James, was out when I attended), and the show received blockbuster reviews when it premiered (with most, but not all, of the current cast) in May as part of New York City Center’s Encores! series, I was nevertheless amazed at so rumbustious a reception. This is, you may know, a show that, regardless of its many followers, isn’t widely seen as a Broadway classic. Many major books on Broadway musicals barely mention it, if at all. One of the few that does, Kurt Gänzl’s Song and Dance, even notes that, despite its first production’s 764 performances, it flopped in London and has lived on “largely in those non-commercial theaters who prize the apparently commercially unviable work of Sondheim apparently above all other music-theater works.”

The show will only be here for eight weeks, so even in a first-rate mounting it seems still too risky for an open run. Lear deBessonet’s stripped-down, elegantly simplified staging, which focuses on the score and performances rather than elaborate visuals, is thoroughly enjoyable. David Rockwell’s set leans toward the concert-version look, with the orchestra fully visible upstage on a platform several steps above the downstage area, where most of the action takes place. Tall birch tree trunks hang over the stage, rising and falling for variety; the backdrop is simply a blue sky with a full moon; Tyler Micoleau lights it bewitchingly; and Andrea Hood’s storybook costumes splash it all with color.

Gavin Creel, Julia Lester

Into the Woods, you’ll recall, is a grown-up look at the conventionally happily-ever-after world of familiar Charles Perrault and Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Ironically, Between the Lines, a new musical playing a block away also offers a postmodernist take on fairy tales; in one scene, a therapist says to a teenage girl obsessed with a fictional prince, “Fairytales don’t usually inspire violence,” to which she replies, “Tell that to the Brothers Grimm.”

Lapine’s book recounts the tale of the Baker (Jason Forbach, understudying nicely for Mr. D’Arcy James) and his wife (Sarah Bareilles, marvelous), unable to have kids after being cursed by a Witch (Patina Miller, sensational) who will lift the curse only if they bring her four things: a milk-white cow (played by a wonderful puppet of skin and bones manipulated by the charming Kennedy Kanagawa), a blood-red cape, corn-yellow hair, and a golden slipper. This quest opens the door for other classic fairytale characters, from Jack (Alex Joseph Grayson, covering effectively for Cole Thompson), of beanstalk fame, and his mother (Aymee Garcia); Cinderella (Phillipa Soo, brilliant), and her stepmother (Nancy Opel, excellent), mother (Annie Golden, adorable), and stepsisters (Ta’Nika Gibson and Brooke Ishibashi, terrific); Little Red Ridinghood (Julia Lester, a comic find); Rapunzel (Alysia Velez, just right); a pair of ridiculously narcissistic princes (Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, on top of their game); and so on, not to mention a Giant’s widow, played by a huge pair of skeletal ankle boots that clomp thunderously across the stage. (Cheyenne Jackson will take over Gavin Creel’s roles as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf from July 24 to August 2.)

Patina Miller

The script is structured so the first act comes to a satisfactory conclusion, with the interwoven threads neatly tied off. (In fact, the high school version—in addition to some heavy cuts—actually ends here.) Only the Narrator’s (David Patrick Kelly) “to be continued” suggests that a second act is coming, which I’ve always felt to be a bit of a letdown; after all, you’ve sat there for 90 minutes, the plot has been resolved, and I don’t blame you for thinking you may not care enough about what happens to these fantasy characters to want to sit through another hour or more. (The running time is two hours and fifty minutes.) 

It’s that second act, though, that Messrs. Sondheim and Lapine had in mind to begin with. In it, the sneaky ways in which the characters achieved their goals come back to bite them. The Giant’s widow (Ms. Golden) seeks retribution, and the characters are forced to seek redemption for their earlier behavior. The theme is the need to take responsibility for your actions, so the group joins together as a community to overcome the Giant’s widow. As the penultimate song says, “No One Is Alone.”

Aymee Garcia, Cole Thompson, Kennedy Kanagawa

The principals, some of whom play more than one role, all get a big chance to shine, and each makes the most of their moments. Ms. deBessonet’s direction is as laser-focused on the comedy as on the plot and score. The pumped-up cast, going for the comic jugular, sometimes does so by exaggerating their roles with the broadest farcical strokes, as when the princes keep topping each other for silliness in the hilarious “Agony.” Only occasionally does this kind of foolery go too far. At other times, a single look or syllable, delivered with diamond-cutting precision by an actress like Ms. Bareilles or Ms. Lester, can bring down the house.

For sheer energetic, show-stopping charisma, Ms. Miller’s Witch, either when made up to look ugly or when in a fully sequined evening gown, is unbridled nuclear power. When she sings “Witch’s Lament” or “Last Midnight,” she casts a spell that stays with you all the way home.

Cast of Into the Woods

Once again, Sondheim’s genius as a lyricist is on display. His repetitive “Into the Woods,” for instance, is an earworm even an otolaryngologist can’t remove, while “Children Will Listen” demonstrates its status as one of Sondheim’s most distinguished songs. The more you hear these numbers, the greater your admiration.

Wouldn’t it be great if every season had at least one Sondheim revival? There’s even a theater with his name attached where it could be an ongoing annual festival. I guarantee people will listen.

Into the Woods. Through August 21 at the St. James Theatre (246 West 44th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.intothewoodsbway.com 

Photos: Matt Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade