“It’s a great show but…” As a reader and potential audience member it can be frustrating when that rave review you’re perusing suddenly hits a speed bump. Is anything ever perfect? I have news for you: it’s also irksome for us, too. The job we’ve chosen demands we tell it like it is, even under the best of circumstances. Good news today: the Encores! revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, which after a triumphant run Off Broadway in the spring is encoring as the first show to kick off the 2022-2023 Broadway season, is perfect, no “buts” about it.
Oh, there are minor quibbles (of course). It’s a typical bare-bones-ish concert presentation from Encores!, which works for its long-running, Fosse-rich mainstay Chicago though is less suited for all that plot-heavy running around in the woods amidst the fantastic onstage orchestra. And maybe in any staging it’s indulgently long, not quite knowing when to end sort-of happily ever after once its fairy tale characters, having seen their wishes come true as Act I concludes, are put through the wringer in Act II. (With all the fails and bad decision-making in and around the seductive forest this is the Sondheim show that could’ve been called Follies.)
But: perfect. (There’s always the 2014 film version to compact and slenderize matters, and I think the rapt kids seated near me may have seen or even been in the popular Into the Woods Jr. that circulates in schools.)
Let’s get to the great stuff. The cast! Every member, all top Broadway talent shining bright, no interlopers from movies and TV struggling to hit the notes or stumbling over tricky lyrics. Being a concert performance director Lear deBessonet front-and-centers everyone on the St. James and lets them wow us, individually or in small ensembles. There’s no end of riches here. Brian d’Arcy James and Sara Bareilles are a perfectly imperfect match as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, whose desire for a child puts them at odds once the enchantment begins and their humble world expands in unpredictable ways. Gavin Creel does double duty as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, and makes a delightful double act with Joshua Henry as Rapunzel’s prince performing the royals’ show-stopping “Agony.” Philippa Soo, like Henry a Hamilton alum, beautifully delineates the conflicted Cinderella, who fits into the slipper but doesn’t quite know how to fit in elsewhere. Veterans David Patrick Kelly (obligatory shout-out to his Luther in The Warriors), Annie Golden, Nancy Opel, and Aymee Garcia add world-weary texture to the piece. Two newcomers, Julia Lester as the innocent of switchblade-carrying Little Red Ridinghood and Cole Thompson as Jack (of the Beanstalk fame), will clearly add to their ranks in the fullness of time–for now (and on a planned cast album) we have her splendid rendition of “I Know Things Now,” and his magnificent “Giants of the Sky,” which left the audience in a state of rock star paroxysm (and not for the first or last time; seriously, it’s like a tent revival on Broadway when favorites like the opening number, “On the Steps of the Palace,” “No More,” and “No One is Alone” are heard).
Speaking of rock stars–Patina Miller as the Witch. We’re not worthy. She hasn’t been on Broadway since her astonishing Tony-winning turn in Pippin a decade ago, and I think I know why. This is a performer who turbo-charges everything she does, throwing body and soul into it, and it would take me ten years to recover if I could perform like her just once. She’s Tina Turner, she’s Eartha Kitt, she’s…Patina Miller. The very definition of sui generis. If you find my jaw where it dropped on the theater floor when she tore into “Last Midnight,” please let me know.
Special mention must be made of Kennedy Kanagawa, debuting on Broadway as…Milky White. Jack’s beloved old cow…which doesn’t seem like much of an assignment. But Kanagawa imbues the puppet he’s manipulating with actual life, and I was mesmerized watching him act the various emotions that Milky goes through (quite a lot, as everyone wants their hands on the poor beast; maybe one day we’ll get an Into the Woods told from his point of view). He moo-ved me.
Then again the entire lo-fi production is outstanding: the other funny puppetry (design by James Ortiz; the manifestation of the much-feared giant is particularly amusing); Andrea Hood’s costumes; David Rockwell’s forested set; Cookie Jordan’s hair, wigs, and makeup design; Tyler Micoleau’s lighting; Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann’s audio. It’s hard to make something that’s seemingly so simple, and they have done it.
And perhaps Into the Woods, which debuted in the mid-80s, meets our fretful moment, when everything but giants seem to be falling from the sky. The spiky humor and penetrating insight invested in archetypal characters we laugh and cry with (“Children Will Listen” is a song to collapse to) leaves us feeling refreshed, and seen. “I wish” are the words that begin and end Into the Woods, and I wish Sondheim were here to see audiences fully enjoying the first New York production of one of his shows that he wasn’t around to add to or see. But…his work is in good hands, and it will be admired by future generations.