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Into the Woods

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The ensemble cast confronts danger in Into the Woods. (Matthew Murphy)

Into the Woods

By Fern Siegel

“Are you 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.

This round, 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 set, comprised 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.

En route, 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).

The musical’s cast is strong, and the understudies are clearly ready for prime time. All are well served by Andrea Hood’s costume designs.

As each 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.

Both artists 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.

But all 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 greater good?

There 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.


Many 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.


While 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.

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Joshua Henry and Gavin Creel sing “Agony” as dual princes. (Matthew Murphy)


Still, 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.)


For 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.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, through August 21