In her first season as Artistic Director, Lear deBessonet has committed to expanding the Encores! experience with a three-pronged approach. No longer focusing solely on revivals of forgotten musicals, deBessonet and Producing Creative Director Clint Ramos are broadening the tapestry to include “revivals of hidden gems, productions where artists reclaim work for our time through their own personal lens, and celebrations that look at the ways musical theater connects us.” With the three shows they’ve produced this season, they’ve done that: first with The Tap Dance Kid (hidden gem), then with The Life (reclamation). Now, Encores! is presenting a musical so well-known and beloved that it might be the best example of a musical that can offer the connection in deBessonet’s third tier.
Into the Woods is probably the most popular musical to hit an Encores! stage in recent memory. Even more so than shows like Evita, A Chorus Line, or Little Shop of Horrors, the cross-generational appeal of Into the Woods is one of the few things that can unite, say, a Boomer and a TikTokker. The fairy tale characters, the accessible humor, and its universal emotionality have made Into the Woods one of the most frequently produced musicals worldwide. deBessonet’s expansion of the Encores! brand was met with some hostility on Twitter, particularly because Into the Woods is produced so much. But the line was down the block when I showed up to see it last week and the audience was amped to be there in a way I have not ever experienced at Encores!. deBessonet is on to something: give the people what they want, at least once a season.
And then do it well! deBessonet’s production, though nothing revelatory, conveys every beat of James Lapine’s complicated plot with very little set (the flying trees and uprooted houses are by David Rockwell) to help do the work. It’s often tricky to keep the multiple characters moving around the woods and stay out of each other’s way; there are (at least) three separate threads that can easily get tangled. deBessonet’s staging displays an understanding of the material and a connection to the characters that supersedes any other scenography.
That extends to the expertly assembled cast as well. Because Into the Woods is so cherished, many actors have lived with these characters long before they came to the first rehearsal. It then shows in their detailed performances, no more so than in this concert production. It’s always nice to be reminded what a skilled actor Neil Patrick Harris is. As the Baker, he particularly excels in the second act when he grapples with loss and fatherhood, both as a father and a son. Harris’ performance is less fidgety than past Bakers; he finds an anxiety-ridden stillness that feels very truthful. He is not a go-getter, he’s someone who is overwhelmed by the choices put before him and has to battle through that.
Sara Bareilles plays the Baker’s Wife in a similarly small way at the beginning. Though they don’t have much chemistry, it’s plausible that these two people are married. For such stars, both Harris and Bareilles present as ordinary, dough-pounding people at first. They’re going about their lives, trying to conceive a child, but are stymied by something unknown. It’s their only want; their lives are content otherwise. As they are thrown into the Witch’s quest for random objects, they both come out of that shell and blossom into stronger, more dynamic people. Harris and Bareilles manage this shift little-by-little, combining each scene like the next ingredient in their batter. For Bareilles, it comes out of the oven, fragrant and steamy, when she performs a breathtaking “Moments in the Woods” in Act II. It’s a frank rendering–she’s not flustered, she’s coming to terms. It’s hard to find so many new variations in the texture of a song as famous as that one, but Bareilles, in a feat of acting and singing, manages to make it sound brand new.
Heather Headley’s Witch is instantly iconic. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so unforgettable, because it’s really about Headley, in general, being one of our greatest talents. She is so rarely on stage and it’s an absolute shame. Headley is the kind of performer who makes you feel lucky to have seen her and lucky to even be alive at the same time. Her pre-transformation Witch is so understated it’s jarring at first, but you come to see her, cursed and deformed, as someone suffering from depression. She’s beaten down by what’s happened to her. After the transformation is successful at the end of Act I, Headley emerges in a ballgown and she’s practically sparkling. She shimmies and opens up into her body and suddenly the Witch seems kinda happy! Headley tears into the Witch’s songs, particularly “Stay With Me” and (holy shit) “Last Midnight”, unleashing the full power of that voice. The songs have never sounded like they do here, in the best possible way. There is a mix of anger and sorrow in every note, the two emotions scratching and clawing at each other, but ultimately pairing up to come out of her mouth with such force and pathos. It’s an open wound of a take and, goddamn, is it brilliant.
When Stephen Sondheim passed away last November, his loss was felt (and is still resounding) not just across the theatre community, but by everyone who has been touched by his work. It’s inevitable that the death of our greatest composer/lyricist will cast a different light on his work. We will hear things differently, reappraise, reconsider, appreciate again. Into the Woods, because of its fairy tale trappings, is a crowd pleaser and is often put in a separate category apart from the intellectual masterworks that are more commonly associated with his name. But one of the gifts of this Encores! revival is that it brings out how smart this piece of writing is. Take something like “Agony”, a comedic duet between two secondary characters that is also about the blindness of privilege. Or look at the way the plot builds across an act and a half to collide in “Your Fault”, where Sondheim musicalizes an argument that calls back to multiple small gestures we saw happen in the hours preceding it. The way Sondheim crafts the dramatic situations in song is unparalleled.
He’s often accused of being cold and cerebral–a boring opinion and an incorrect assessment. You listen to “Children Will Listen”, particularly as performed by Heather Headley in this beautiful revival, and tell me there’s no heart there. You can’t. In fact, it’s all heart, even when the head is getting in the way.