I just had to see this show again. I wasn’t even planning on being in NYC very much this summer, or at all, to be honest, as my familial life is keeping me attached to being in Ontario, Canada these days. But I wasn’t going to miss my chance to see the Broadway transfer and revival of Into the Woods, even though I saw it when it first took to the stage a few months ago at New York City Center as part of the Encores!series. And even though they altered the artwork for the Broadway production a wee bit (and not for the better), I couldn’t just sit in Canada knowing that Stephen Sondheim’s wonderfully smart masterpiece was once again opening and taking us all most delightfully Into the Woods. And not surprisingly, but quite joyfully, it was just announced yesterday that the production was extended another eight weeks until October 16th. Now that is a bunch of wishes granted, I am sure.
The production, gloriously and hilariously helmed once again by Encores! Artistic Director Lear deBessonet (Public/Disney’s Hercules; Public’s Miss You Like Hell), has only gotten better with the transfer, carrying over a number of its stellar cast members when it skipped its way down the wooden path to Broadway, including, most wonderfully, the amazing Sara Bareilles as The Baker’s Wife, Gavin Creel as the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince, and Julia Lester as Little Red Ridinghood (although when I saw the show the other night on Broadway, I saw the incredibly gifted Delphi Borich in the part). New cast members; Brian d’Arcy James as The Baker, Patina Miller as The Witch, Phillipa Soo as Cinderella, and Joshua Henry as Rapunzel’s Prince, happily joined in for the fun at Broadway’s St. James Theatre without missing a beat, finding further proof that this revival is one not to be missed.
I know that the extremely talented Cheyenne Jackson is scheduled to fill in for Creel starting July 24th, which only makes me want to return to the show one more time. I also didn’t get to see Brian d’Arcy James as The Baker the night I went, which is reason number two (like a really need more reasons to return – “I wish” I could, many times over). Jason Forbach (Broadway’s The Phantom...) stepped into The Baker role, and stood next to Bareilles looking perfect together. Forbach was made for the role next to her. Feeling like a true couple, he took his place most honorably from the first note sung. As did the wonderful Alex Joseph Grayson (Broadway’s Girl From the North Country) who was taking on the role of Jack the night I saw Into the Woods. All blessings, and no disappointments either.
And no surprise here. With sold-out crowds packing City Center back in May, a Broadway transfer and now extension were just plain inevitable, and all those wishes and dreams that filled the air and are at the core of this Sondheim classic were granted in abundance. A happily ever after I’m sure for those who haven’t ventured yet Into the Woods. This fairytale adventure is and continues to be a forever joy, delivering a connected, clever piece of magical storytelling, that takes smart off-the-path twists and turns with several well-known children’s bedtime stories, and one brand new one; The Baker and his Wife. Sondheim expertly weaves them together into a compelling musical about wishing and wanting, and if you stay for Act II, you learn that actions have consequences and that one must lead by example. We get the answer to what happens when you actually get what you wish for, and what one can learn from what they lost. All played out in and amongst the white birch woods on the stage of the St. James Theatre, surrounded by the wonderful Encores! orchestra, led by the musical director, Robert Berman (Broadway’s Bright Star).
Assembled so beautifully well, the piece unfolds most wisely and filled with the excitement of the whole theatre, uncovering every ounce of humor and joy inside every line and lyric at every turn on the winding path. It can’t be denied, that this directorial focus delivers a bit of wonderfully insightful escapism for us all to devour like a wolf in gramma’s clothing. We dive in most happily with this band of merry, talented artists, without any hesitation, feeling grateful to enter those dark woods with them most joyfully at our side. Trouble lurks outside, in the air, and in our politics, as big and scary as a big, old giant falling from the skies, and all we can do is stay together, united, and keep our eyes peeled so we don’t get crushed.
Directed with a joyful acknowledgment of the fine cast assembled and the impeccable piece of writing at her disposal, DeBessonet executes the task most effectively and efficiently, finding all of the humor and care inside Sondheim’s smart words and melodies. The overlaying is magnificent, and although I thought, as I did with the Encores! production, that the piece could use a bit more intrepid introspection into the darkness and sensuality of the lyrics, the production steadfastly unearths a straightforward jokie innocence that lives beautifully deep in the entangled darkness. All and all, this bypass doesn’t come even close to hurting this production, mainly because it is full of wildly wonderful performances having a fun comedic playtime with every scene and scenario, unpacking and delivering with gusto, intelligence, and bravado.
The fine cast members assembled are all completely outstanding, particularly Bareilles (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar) as The Baker’s Wife. The part is one of the richest in the lot, yet she finds her way to unpack a delicate rich emotional depth that is also filled with sardonic charm and touching elegance. It’s a truly mesmerizing performance, one that will go down in the history books, seamlessly matched by the wonderful understudy, Forbach as The Baker, or should I say The Baker’s Wife’s Husband. Together, they carry a complex and compelling attachment to one another, and a tender desperation to have a child, feeling more true and honest than when I saw it with Neil Patrick Harris at City Center (albeit he was absolutely hilarious in the part, especially since he too was a last-minute replacement to the always busy Christian Borle). The two (very talented) partners in their quest for a child radiate an authentic fractious relationship from within, giving us an authentic couple who can love, bicker, stray, and fight, and still be basically ok. That’s a powerful statement, one that should never be taken lightly.
With Patina Miller (Broadway’s Pippin), I wasn’t when walking into the theatre as sure-footed about her as the witchiest of wonderful witches as I was when I saw the incomparable Heather Headley (Broadway’s The Color Purple) at City Center, but the fun in the fierceness is on full display here on Broadway. She owns the part, inside every twist and turn, embracing the distortions and the transformation with glee and a solid well-founded sense of confidence and expertise. Her deformed initial appearance radiates menace and surprising humor, but she also finds power and deliciousness in her (not so magical) glamorous transformation, courtesy of costume designer Andrea Hood (Public’s Twelfth Night). Her Act Two powerless-witch persona, desperate for maternal attachment and love, delivers a gloriously smart edge in her ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Children Will Listen’, which are seamlessly emotional, dynamic, and utterly outstanding. It’s an exciting edgy performance, as playful as it is powerful.
This time around the woods, I was gifted with the chance of seeing the talented Delphi Borich in the scene-stealing part of Little Red Ridinghood. At City Center, and on Broadway, the part is typically portrayed by the engaging Julia Lester (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series“) who delivers well as the greedy red-caped young lady who learns a lot about the world inside the woods. But Borich (“WeCrashed“) dutifully unpacks a whole bunch more in her excitingly clever portrayal of that young lady. Under her blood-red cape, we discover, not only a young female force that can not be toyed with, but a sharper edge to her own brand of cleverness. I still maintain that what’s missing in this revival is her overall lusty attraction to the devilish wolf, played appealingly, but not seductively enough by Gavin Creel (Broadway’s She Loves Me; Hello, Dolly!), but I think I’m holding on to something I should let go of. Although that edge that I love is more here with Borich on Broadway than it ever was at City Center.