theater review

A Near-Perfect Into the Woods, for a Moment

Sara Bareilles and Brian d’Arcy James in Into the Woods. Photo: Evan Zimmerman

As Into the Woods’s Little Red says, in one of the moral-of-the-story pronouncements dotted through the show: The prettier the flower, the farther from the path. When it went onstage this past May as part of the the Encores! series at City Center, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical of knitted Grimm fairy tales was an atypical choice. Usually Encores! aims to show us hazily remembered, historically significant musicals that are unlikely to be revived. Into the Woods is newish, and it’s performed often and enthusiastically. (There are more than 50 productions in the U.S. and UK just this summer, from Vicksburg to Concord to Leeds, and that doesn’t even count school and camp productions of the one-act condensation Into the Woods Jr.) So why do it at Encores!, in semi-staged form, for such a short run?

Well, it hasn’t been on Broadway in 20 years, and maybe that’s reason enough. But I have a hunch, also, that everyone wanted to be in this production, and their availability synced up just right. (Another pronouncement from the show: The harder to get, the better to have.) For those couple of weeks at City Center, it starred Neil Patrick Harris, Sara Bareilles, Heather Headley, and Gavin Creel (playing the Baker and Baker’s Wife, the Witch, and, doubled, the Wolf and the Prince). Any of them can front a marquee, and all sounded great; the supporting tier of performers—including Ann Harada and Shereen Pimentel and two newcomers named Julia Lester and Cole Thompson—are perhaps not ticket-selling names on their own, but they killed. Maybe Sondheim’s unexpected death last year added emotional depth for both cast and audience; maybe it was just that hard-to-describe thing that happens when every piston fires on time, every gear meshes, every valve syncs up, and the thing really takes off down the road. It sold out fast and soon found a Broadway house for an eight-week transfer—again presumably threading the needle during a brief vacancy at the St. James.

It opens there tonight, now with Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker, Patina Miller as the Witch, and Phillipa Soo as Cinderella, among a few other cast changes. Creel and Bareilles are still in, and judging by a post-show Beatlemania moment I saw at the stage door on 44th Street, she’s the commercial draw. Lear deBessonet, who runs the Encores! series and directed, has kept her rather light and simple set design from City Center approximately intact. (Sometimes the things you most wish for are not to be touched.) The orchestra is onstage, at the rear of a low tiered set that stands in for, among other things, the steps of the palace. That pushes much of the action forward, right up to the lip of the stage, which turns out to be a great choice. I’d never quite grasped in the past how much of this show is made up of tour-de-force numbers for individual cast members, and keeping it all downstage gives prominence to their faces and body language.

That in turn brings some cleanliness and clarity to the tricky, interwoven plots, especially in the show’s second half. (No knot unties itself.) In the first act, familiar fairy-tale characters keep bumping into one another as their stories play out, ending with happily-ever-afters. In the second, the characters deal with the unexpected ramifications of their H.E.A. moments. A Narrator (David Patrick Kelly, a real New York stage old-timer who is wry and perfect here) tees up the stories and gradually turns out to be more than he seems. The opening number sets up this tangle, and is a dizzying beast to stage, whether in a small-town community theater or on Broadway: about fifteen minutes long, a dozen singers, all crossing among one another in a market square’s worth of stage business.

A mild surprise, if you’ve become accustomed to the show via its various original cast albums, is just how much comedy there is in this musical comedy. The book scenes, which the recordings skip, are funnier than I remembered, and deBessonet gets a lot out of them. Gavin Creel, as one of the two preening, ridiculous princes, camps it up exactly enough, and even (because he’s supposed to be lapping up the praise) does a little jokey acknowledgment of the applause after “Agony” that both stays in character and, cleverly, breaks it just a little. Little Red, too, is written to get laughs, and Lester makes the most of those lines with a camped-up eye roll here and a sidelong ogle there.

Let me just say it plainly: There’s no weak link in the cast, all night. Bareilles has a light tinkly playfulness in the funny moments—I’m thinking of that line that Joanna Gleason reportedly gave Sondheim, “This is ridiculous, what I am I doing here, I’m in the wrong story”—that almost suggests that she’s taking it easy up there, and then her big mezzo-soprano voice comes around the corner and knocks you back in your chair. Miller as the Witch occasionally seems a little distanced from the rest of the cast—her “Stay With Me” feels discrete, a showy solo concert turn rather than a part fully blended into the whole. But it’s a good concert turn.

Shall we talk about Milky White? Every director has to figure out how to handle the cow whom Jack is bringing to market and eventually sells for a handful of magic beans. In 1987, he was a static figure made of something like papier-mâché; at various times he’s been played by a costumed performer or towed around on little wheels. This time, he’s a super-flexy skeletal puppet with an onstage operator (I saw Cameron Johnson, filling in for Kennedy Kanagawa) and is enormously expressive. When a character misidentifies the Baker as the Butcher, Milky tenses up and quivers, drawing big laughs. At other times he is visibly affectionate or trembly. In the second act, a Giant descends from the beanstalk, played by a pair of enormous, lightly constructed wicker shoes that two performers carry about, stomping them down by turns as the beast walks the earth. It’s an inventive piece of staging by deBessonet and her construction team and puppeteers. They give the lie to one more of those aphorisms: The difference between a cow and a bean / Is a bean can begin an adventure. So, it turns out, can anything, even a rare break of timing, the multi-million-dollar version of let’s-put-on-a-show scrappiness. Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.

Into the Woods is at the St. James Theatre through October 16. 

A Near-Perfect Into the Woods, for a Moment