The ensemble cast
confronts danger in Into the Woods. (Matthew Murphy)
Into the Woods
By Fern Siegel
certain what you wish is what you want?” asks the Baker in Stephen Sondheim’s
masterwork Into the Woods. The interlocking stories of fairy-tale
characters offering a treasure trove of psychological insights has its latest
Broadway revival at the St. James Theater.
the production is spare — allowing attention to focus on vocal, rather than
visual moments. It is the tart, tight lyrics that stand out against David Rockwell’s
of large birch trees and the occasional prop. This image of woods isn’t as dark
as previous productions, but the meaty moral issues remain.
Led by Broadway
Tony winners Patina Miller’s Witch and Sara Bareilles’ sly-witted Baker’s Wife,
the show demands strong, emotional performances to capture the contradictions
of pain, revenge and loss.
The Baker (Jason
Forbach at this performance, usually Brian d’Arcy James) and his wife are
desperate to have a child. (“I wish” is a recurrent refrain, which underscores
the longing of human existence.) To do so, they must lift the Witch's curse — but
they need four things to break the spell: a white cow, red cape, yellow hair
and gold slipper. The quest to secure those items will kick-start an array of
acts and counteracts that will ultimately change everyone’s destiny — and
challenge the conventional happily-ever-after motif.
they meet various characters saddled with their own woes: Cinderella (Phillipa
Soo), Little Red Ridinghood (Delphi Borch at this performance), Jack (Alex
Joseph Grayson at this performance), Rapunzel (Alysia Velez) and two Princes,
Prince Charming (Gavin Creel), "raised to be charming, not sincere,"
and Rapunzel’s Prince (Joshua Henry).
cast is strong, and the understudies are clearly ready for prime time. All are well served
by Andrea Hood’s costume designs.
ventures into the woods, a Jungian collective unconscious in search of their
fate, secrets and frailties are revealed. Hidden depths of strength, sexuality
and love arise, as does the concurrent problems of a scarred childhood.
Sondheim's genius is to relay important truths in an engaging, singular way.
James Lapine's is to create a connected world of motives and desires. His book
for the musical is all about the journey, but blessed with a comedic twist.
mine Grimm's characters for humor and heartache, which gives songs such as the
knowingness of "Children Will Listen" and "No One is
Alone," alongside the silly narcissism of "Agony," added weight.
Into the Woods reminds us that life is comprised of telling moments and
larger truths: Actions have consequences, often unforeseen. “Everyone tells
lies, what’s important is the size,” says a glib Prince Charming.
actions, truthful or otherwise, have a way of catching up with us. And when the
characters confront a monster marauding through their village, their simplistic
ideas of good and evil are brought into question. The song “Your Fault” neatly
sums up a group’s fault-back position — blame — while raising key questions:
What is individual vs. collective responsibility? When do we sacrifice for the
is also a touching sense of reality. The Witch is a bad parent, but her goal is
to shield her daughter. The Baker worries if he will cut it as a father.
Cinderella is forced to confront reality once fantasy wears thin. These are
fractured fairy tales; happily ever after is just the myth we are sold.
cast members originally appeared in the Encores! production and its style — concert
vs. lavish musical — is evident here. That’s no surprise, given the director is
Lear deBessonet, the artistic director of Encores! at New York City Center.
she gets winning performances from her cast, the show offers less directorial
surprises. In the original, in which Bernadette Peters played The Witch, her
transformation is subtle stage magic. Here, it’s all done off-stage, which
lessens the wow factor.
Henry and Gavin Creel sing “Agony” as dual princes. (Matthew Murphy)
Sondheim, who died in late November 2021, has seen a remarkable revival of his
work — Assassins at CSC and Company on Broadway — just before his
death and Into the Woods a few months later. (There was also a Hollywood-studded
Into the Woods movie in 2014.)
many theatergoers, Into the Woods is their first introduction to
Sondheim. And it’s a fitting one, a potent reminder of how enduring his work is
— and why this particular musical is always worth seeing.
Into the Woods, St. James Theater, 256 W. 44 St.
time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, through August 21