The wider world’s favourite Sondheim musical, Into The Woods shimmers in an exceptionally starry, pitch perfect revival that proudly symbolises all the joy and wonder that characterise the magic of Broadway.
Originating as part of the City Center Encores! 2022 season back in May, the slick concert presentation of Into The Woods swiftly announced a move to Broadway, where it has continued its celebrated season since July. Clearly as much a favourite of the Broadway firmament of stars as of the public, the revival has seen any departing cast members replaced by equally talented performers.
In line with its Encores! origins, (and as seen in similar transfers including Chicago and Gypsy), the production features the band in plain sight on stage. And what a band! Along with the cast, the Encores! orchestra also remains with the show, conducted by none other than legendary maestro Rob Berman himself.
Part of the excitement of seeing this revival of Into The Woods comes from the pleasure of attending a Sondheim show presented as a mainstage, crowd-pleasing event. Young audience members know the 2014 movie and have probably performed in or seen the show in high school or college. When the audience greets the opening chord of “Giants in the Sky” with applause, you know that the house is filled with many a big fan of the show.
Approaching the much-loved work with a well-judged balance of healthy respect and compelling creativity, director Lear de Bessonet quickly has the audience see past the minimal scenery and immerse themselves in the charming fantasy world. Most impressively, de Bessonet provides welcome laughs from new line readings and physical comedy whilst also ensuring that moments of pathos land with full emotional impact. In this facet, the production honours book writer James Lapine as well as all too recently departed composer Stephen Sondheim.
Scenic designer David Rockwell begins with tiny 3D model houses floating over the three key households. When the characters venture into the woods, numerous white hollow poles drop into view.
Costume designer Andrea Hood uses a vivid selection of block colours, outfitting the wealthy characters in vibrant tones while the peasants (Sondheim’s word) wear far duller shades. In just one of Hood’s neat story-telling touches, Jack changes from drab to fab when he cashes in on the Giant’s loot.
Usually it would take attendance of at least four shows to see as many high profile Broadway stars as are featured in Into The Woods.
Sharing the role with Montego Glover, Patina Miller (Pippin) gives the first incarnation of the Witch an earthy cantankerousness before modulating her vocal tone with the return of the Witch’s youthful beauty. Dazzling in a metallic purple pant suit and cape, Miller neatly underplays the Witch as completely self-confident and in control, batting oversized lashes as she endures the presence of local muggles. “Last Midnight” is a carefully calibrated tour de force, with a new, imaginative visual ending.
Treasured star Stephanie J. Block (The Cher Show) brings a wide-eyed wholesomeness to the Baker’s Wife, scoring laughs with moments that are as inventive as they are completely in character. Emotion pours from Block as her voice soars in the final notes of “Moments in the Woods,” the number earning the loudest and longest applause of the evening.
Respected Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James (Something Rotten) skilfully conveys the general helplessness of The Baker, taking him on an endearing journey towards warmth and the embrace of a new family. “No More” is a masterclass of putting all trust in the music and words and letting them work their magic.
Gavin Creel (Hello, Dolly!) delights in a vivacious performance as the quirky Wolf and Cinderella’s vainglorious Prince. The prancing pays off late in the show when the Prince simply gives it away in the realisation of the inane superficiality of it all.
Andy Karl (Groundhog Day) is luxury casting as Rapunzel’s Prince, giving Creel a suitably egocentric fellow Prince with whom to merrily bounce back and forth.
Krysta Rodriguez plays Cinderella with a grounded, canny edge, avoiding the potential saccharine flavour of the soprano role.
Young roles Jack and Little Red Ridinghood are characterised with what can only be described as a sassy zillenial edge. Cole Thompson is wonderfully open and engaging as Jack, while Katy Geraghty sports a wickedly knowing, bloodthirsty drive as Little Red.
In one of the more creative inventions, the feet of the female Giant are worked by the brilliant puppeteers, Kennedy Kanagawa and Albert Guerzon. Having already played Cinderella’s Mother, and Little Red’s Granny, Annie Golden appears upstage to make further use of her richly expressive voice as the Giant.
Proving that there are no small roles, Ann Harada oozes character as Jack’s beleaguered Mother, earning numerous laughs with her world-weary expression.
Kanagawa steals many a scene as puppeteer to the utterly adorable Milky White, also providing incredible sound effects for the cow and the birds.
If you are in New York before 8 January 2023, as they say in the show: go to the woods!
Into The Woods plays at St James Theatre. New York.
Photos: Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman