With a perfect cast, Broadway has an “Into the Woods” for eternity


With a perfect cast, Broadway has an "Into the Woods" for eternity

NEW YORK – The scintillating revival of “Into the Woods” is rendered so harmoniously and meticulously, you’ll swear you can even hear the punctuation marks in the lyrics. Here at the St. James Theatre, where the musical had its official Broadway premiere on Sunday night, the memory of the late Stephen Sondheim is honored in the best way possible: by actors who really know how to sing and singers who really know how to sing storyline.

They were all encouraged to show the bravura by an inspired director, Lear deBessonet. That momentum could bend the theatrical arc toward camp on other occasions. But for the kind of musical comedy Sondheim and author James Lapine were looking for — a storybook world of out-of-control fear — a pesky personal dazzle is absolutely the way to go.

One by one, the members of the extraordinary cast – Sara Bareilles, Phillipa Soo, Gavin Creel, Patina Miller, Brian d’Arcy James, Joshua Henry and more – add fun new twists to old and entirely new fairy tale characters. There is no one not standing up for this special occasion, the Broadway broadcast of a concert version made earlier this year in the long-running Encores series at City Center, the institution that spawned the “Chicago” revival with over 10,000 performances .”

If you’ve never been to a production of Into the Woods, which premiered on Broadway in 1987, this would be an ideal place to start. If so, this would be the perfect place to renew acquaintance. The physical format is simple: more than a dozen strong orchestra on stage, conducted by Rob Berman, conveying the whimsical texture of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations; a simple set design by David Rockwell, with platforms in front and behind the band and birch trees descending for the forest quests, shimmering with Tyler Micoleau’s lighting as a giant shakes the kingdom; and a cast hilariously costumed by Andrea Hood, who recite Lapine’s lines and Sondheim’s score with verve.

The program lists two sound designers, Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann, which feels especially fitting because the clarity with which Sondheim’s lyrics reach our ears is perhaps double the norm. Have you ever experienced what I call auditory fatigue in the theater – the feeling of exhausted defeat that sets in when you lose half the words to problems with musical reinforcement or garbled vocal execution? In the St. James the opposite is the case: Sondheim’s poems are conveyed intoxicatingly, right down to the last syllable of the rhyme being recited.

“Into the Woods” is one of the best-known and most-performed musicals in the Sondheim canon, but it’s only a family show if you also want to explain some of the complexities of life to the little ones afterwards. Lapine and Sondheim invent a kingdom of wishers: a childless baker (d’Arcy James) and his wife (Bareilles); a brutalized Cinderella (Soo); a penniless housewife (Aymee Garcia) and her son Jack, known from “Beanstalk” (Cole Thompson); a wizened witch (Miller) living under a curse. The writers tie almost everything into a pretty bow when the wish list is filled by the end of Act 1 – and then rip the bow to pieces in Act 2.

Nobody gets off scot-free. “Wishes can bring problems that you regret,” says the opening act of Act Two, “but that’s better than never getting them.” The story follows our universal transition from childhood to adulthood. We are thrown out of the land of appearances and into a world of tragic consequences. As the kingdom unravels and is haunted by this vengeful giant (Annie Golden), characters die, turn against each other, and become increasingly confused. Life is a mystery, but not always the fun kind.

The show’s final sequences were forced into an odd and underwhelming morale; Then again, a mess of things may end up being the best we mortals can expect. Still, Lapine and Sondheim create so many huggable characters, and the score is so beautiful, that any concerns about the conspiracy become irrelevant. And that’s especially true for a version of “Into the Woods” that pitches nothing but champions. Bareilles, for example, is a natural, like the baker’s wife: the performance is effortlessly warm and funny, an embodiment of the independence and humility that mark the best of us.

Creel, in the traditional dual role of wolf and Cinderella’s prince, summons his inner ham with a sly comic virtuosity; “Agony” and its repeat, both sung with Rapunzel’s prince played by a delightfully narcissistic Henry, are the best I’ve ever heard. You belong in an “Into the Woods” Hall of Fame along with Julia Lester as the overly confident, rugged Little Red Riding Hood; Soo, injecting carefree charm into a savory Cinderella; and Miller, who sweetly sings “Stay With Me” while still maintaining the witch’s aura of menacing authority.

Cinderella’s entourage (Nancy Opel as stepmother, plus Brooke Ishibashi, Ta’Nika Gibson, David Turner and Albert Guerzon) is a lively side show, and David Patrick Kelly is a brilliant choice as narrator and mystery man. Two standout props also deserve mention: the giant’s imposing, oversized footwear and, more importantly, Milky White as the emotionally tormented puppet cow, who acted hilariously in my portrayal of Cameron Johnson. It must be noted that Milky White would be a moo-in if the Tony Awards ever split the acting categories into dairy and non-dairy.

The final applause heard to the composer who died in November, whose memory pervades every scene. “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the forest. Don’t let it upset you. No one goes forever,” read the lyrics to No One Is Alone. Certainly Sondheim is not gone forever.

In the forest, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Lear deBessonet directed. Musical Director, Rob Berman; Choreography, Lorin Latarro; Orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; Set, David Rockwell; Costumes, Andrea Hood; Lighting, Tyler Micoleau; Clay, Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann. About 2 hours 45 minutes. At the St. James Theater, 246 W. 44th St., New York. intothewoodsbway.com.

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