By Brian Scott Lipton . . .

We do not deserve Heather Headley.

These words first left my lips in 2000 when I first watched this singular performer conquer Broadway in the title role of the musical Aida and again in 2016 when she magnificently took on the role of the sexy Shug Avery in the revival of The Color Purple, breathing new life into an already excellent production,

But never have I felt more strongly about Headley than in City Center Encores! superstar-studded production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical Into the Woods, transforming the Witch into the actual heart and soul of this many-pronged story. Through her very specific and occasionally unusual acting choices and the use of her ultra-flexible voice (reminiscent of the late Whitney Houston), Headley serves up 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. While Headley’s take on the role is lighter on the comedy than some of her predecessors (though she absolutely knows how to earn a laugh if she wants one), it is heavier on the true pathos – and never less than breathtaking.

Aficionados of this much-performed show can argue that Headley’s performance shifts the show’s focus from the one we usually zoom in on, the hapless baker and his headstrong wife whose quest to have a child (and the consequences of having one) is usually the piece’s emotional center. But, fear not, that storyline still lands a punch in the ultra-capable hands of Neil Patrick Harris, who purposely dims his megastar wattage to craft a moving portrait of the once timid-man who finally finds his inner strength (as he takes center stage and delivers a remarkable “No More”) and the brilliant Sara Bareilles, who effortlessly captures the wry comedy needed for the role, as well as providing (as expected) consistently strong vocals, especially for “Moments in the Woods.”

Heather Headley, Neil Patrick Harris, Sara Bareilles, Julia Lester, and Company

Given both the firepower of the entire cast — which also includes such superb Broadway veterans as Denee Benton (an especially lovely and down-to-earth Cinderella), David Patrick Kelly, Annie Golden, David Turner and Shireen Pimentel — and the challenges of blocking such a complex piece, one must give true credit to director Lear deBessonnet for how cohesive the show feels. Still, one won’t be surprised if it turns out she left some of the cast to their own devices.

For example, there are almost deliberately scene-stealing turns by an over-the-top Gavin Creel as both the ravenous Wolf and the foppish, preening “Cinderella’s Prince” and a hilariously bossy (yet ultimately vulnerable) Julia Lester as Red Riding Hood. Meanwhile, the priceless Ann Harada offers her patented brand of hilarious vocal delivery as the world-weary mother of Jack (an appealing, older-than-usual Cole Thompson). However. not even she (nor anyone) can fully compete with Kennedy Kanagaway, who brings the silent cow Milky White (superbly created by puppet designer James Ortiz) to literal full-bodied life.

Shereen Pimentel – Heather Headley

Finally, one simply cannot diminish the importance of music director Rob Berman (in his final stint as the series’ music director) and the impeccable onstage orchestra who do full justice to Sondheim’s dazzling, complicated score, ranging from “Last Midnight” 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 since its Broadway premiere 25 years ago. I didn’t think I needed to do so again, but I urge everyone – no matter how jaded or busy – to do what they can to catch this short-lived production. (But eat first, since it runs a full three hours!) And, if by some miracle, Headley ever agrees to play the Witch one more time, I’ll be there to fall under her spell once more!

Into The Woods continues at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through May 15. Visit for more information.

Photos: Joan Marcus