Once more Into the Woods…
As the star-stuffed revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fractured fairy tale musical transferred to Broadway from City Center, I had hoped that some aspects would be amped up for the trip to the Main Stem. Lear deBessonet’s production worked well in its concert staging at Encores!, managing to keep the criss-crossing, multi-character plot clear and captivating without much more than some steps and dangling trees. But, aside from humanizing the cow Milky White (through stunning puppetry and performances by Kennedy Kanagawa and Cameron Johnson), deBessonet’s production didn’t have much to say about the show’s relationships (between parent/child, spouses, friends) or about the intrusion of real life (and death) on an idyllic world.
That’s all fine in a concert setting, meant to last a couple weeks and move on. But as the production opens at the St. James Theatre, it becomes the third rendering of Into the Woods on Broadway, and the only one not directed by its author, Lapine. The text is ripe for mining; there’s so much to explore in it that is often just overlooked in service to the plotting. The Encores! rehearsal time is abbreviated, so there’s not much opportunity to explore. But here they have a second chance and it doesn’t feel like much has been deepened or enriched in its new digs.
The significant improvement–and it’s remarkable–is in the chemistry. Without a huge set or a directorial reframing, the production lives and dies on its performers. I praised Sara Bareilles’ performance as the Baker’s Wife in its prior incarnation and she is even more comfortable in the part, excelling at the physical comedy aspects along with a very moving “Moments in the Woods.” As she held for her deafening ovation, tears were visible in her eyes; the “moment” Bareilles, the actress, was living seemed to hit her with full force.
She’s paired here with a new addition to the cast, Brian d’Arcy James as her husband, the Baker. James and Bareilles are on the same wavelength. They are in tune with each other in a way that makes it seem like they’ve known each other for many years. Their repartee ping-pongs back and forth and they sound phenomenal when they join voices in “It Takes Two.” James brings a rich emotionality to his performance; things seem to hit his Baker hard. In the first act, he carries the weight of his journey into the woods heavily–it’s his responsibility to get the items to cure his father’s curse. In an gut wrenching rendition of “No More” in the second act, he encapsulates the consequences of the prior events in a palpable piece of singing. He’s always been a star, but here James is truly at a pinnacle of his gifts.
As the Witch, Patina Miller makes her return to Broadway, replacing Heather Headley from the Encores! production. Miller’s Witch is vulnerable, but masks it with force and bravado. For her, it is as important that the Baker retain the items as it is for him. Miller plays this urgency with a hot desperation, appearing out of nowhere to force him along. She offers fresh takes on the Witch’s iconic songs: she relaxes into the rap and lets the telling of it get her worked up, she aches for Rapunzel to accept her in “Stay With Me” to the point that she’s almost begging, and her “Last Midnight” scorches the forest floor. She’s also very funny–watch her link up with Cinderella’s stepsisters during “Ever After” or offer them to the Giant’s Wife in Act II. Miller and James are both increasingly working in film and television, but they are masterful stage performers who should come back more often.
Also new to the cast are Phillipa Soo as Cinderella and Joshua Henry as Rapunzel’s Prince. Soo’s Cinderella is very reactive; her face is constantly responding to what the other characters are doing around her. She’s not necessarily judgmental, but she’s not not judging them either. Where Cinderella is often just played with bland nicety, Soo is bringing more to the character. Her “No One is Alone” is particularly beautiful. She, too, sounds great with James and their scenes together made me wonder what Cinderella and the Baker’s dynamic is like after the play ends. Soo’s “On the Steps of the Palace” pays particular attention to the lyrical twists and turns and is a masterclass in acting a song.
Though Henry is doing ~a voice~ and playing an extreme narcissist, he calibrates it in a way that somehow, against all odds, is believable. Henry and Gavin Creel, as Cinderella’s Prince, rip into their two versions of “Agony” with aplomb and play off each other nicely. Both at Encores! and on Broadway, I was struck by how intelligently this duet is written. It’s easy to overlook a song like that in the overall spectrum of Sondheim’s canon, but the specificity of character and the way the jokes show up and remain funny time after time is a testament to the man’s understanding of the way humor can be smart, but accessible.
deBessonet’s revival is a perfectly admirable staging that lets the performances come to the foreground. The returning cast from Encores!, including Julia Lester (cutting and hilarious as Little Red), Creel (convincingly seductive as the Wolf, deliciously pompous as the Prince), and Cole Thompson (innocent and warm as Jack) are all seeking out new ways to portray familiar characters and the company, as a whole, is working together like the team of birds who peck lentils out of the ashes for Cinderella. They have a massive undertaking, but they’re making it look easy. And they’re having a ball.