Aisle Seat: Sondheim’s Dazzling “Into the Woods”
Updated: Jul 19
By Naomi Serviss / New York City
The near-perfect new Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s most often performed musical, Into the Woods, is a magically imagined smorgasbord of mashed-up fairy tales, served with a hearty side of beans.
Songwriter and lyricist Sondheim, one of the most important figures in 20th century musical theater, passed away last fall.
This Broadway revival of a sold-out concert version at City Center’s Encores! series will
tickle your fancy if you appreciate crisply articulated Sondheim wit and stellar acting.
The set (sparingly designed by David Rockwell) isn’t lavish, a nod to the bare-bones Encores! version, but brilliantly arresting.
Birch trees gracefully drift down from the sky when needed for dramatic (mis)adventures.
These solid sentries are stand-ins for the dark
and (sometimes) creepy woods.
Such is life in this metaphorical playground, a
mélange of Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales.
“Into the Woods” had its debut at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 1986. It hit Broadway in 1987, then was revived in 2002, directed by James Lapine.
I attended a wonderfully entertaining Shakespeare in the Park production in 2012.
The cast included Amy Adams, Donna Murphy, Denis O’Hare and Chip Zien, all Broadway/film pros.
Set designers created a Disneyesque Swiss Robinson Family Treehouse-like construction
that blended effortlessly with the glorious
Central Park trees rustling in the wind.
It was hyperreal, a waking dream, under the stars. A bucket-list moment for some.
Joined with a sea of worldwide humanity
who stood in line for hours to score free tickets.
It’s a New York thing, for bragging rights.
Live outdoor theater!
Where anything can happen…
No one dropped a line when a raccoon appeared on stage and swiftly dashed to freedom.
It earned enthusiastic applause.
Meanwhile, back at the St. James Theatre,
conductor Rob Berman spins gold with a stream-lined 12-piece orchestra throughout the near-
three-hours-long show, graced with Jonathan Tunick’s playful orchestrations.
The actors are top-drawer, seemingly able
to inhabit complicated lyrics with precision enunciation and emotive body language.
And great timing.
Credit must be given to the two sound designers, Alex Neumann and Scott Lehrer. Their technical mastery becomes obvious upon realizing that
your ears aren’t reverberating from screechy (over-amped) high notes.
And garbled words.
Sondheim and Lapine’s musical journey gathers ancient folk tales retold for generations.
Wishes may come true, but second-guessing and anxiety won’t be far behind.
Little Red Riding Hood (hilariously overplayed by Julia Lester) wants to have her cake and eat it, too.
She gobbles bakery sweets and bread intended
for Granny and engages with a wily Wolf (Gavin Creel, pulling double duty as Cinderella’s fella).
There’s even a wistful cow puppet (Milky White), craftily handled by Cameron Johnson. She steals hearts with a flick of her head.
She’s an audience favorite for good reason.
Joshua Henry’s prince pines for Rapunzel, the one with the endless braid.
When the curtain falls concluding Act One,
things seem copasetic.
Wishes granted, quests fulfilled.
You know, happily ever after.
Not so fast.
For those unfamiliar with Act Two, it essentially eviscerates the previous one,
in a fun, entertaining way!
The evil stepsisters, stepmother and princes are dressed to the nines by costume designer
The audience was rapt the day I attended.
Nary a cell phone mishap nor an inappropriate audience ad lib was heard.
Too many musicals are not only over-amplified, but sung so quickly you can’t help but wonder what the heck was said.
You won’t have that problem in this show.
These people can act! And sing! Clearly!
With passion and humor!
The Baker (Brian d’Arcy James, who was out when I saw it) and his wife, a take-charge Sara Bareilles, the storied composer and lyricist of Waitress form the heart of the story (for me).
She’s also played the lead Waitress role
on many memorable occasions.
The Baker couple’s wish is for a child.
Red Riding Hood, sweet-toothed and snarky (Julia Lester) encounters the devilish wolf (Gavin Creel). That encounter proves to be a teachable moment because Red learned that nice is different than good.
The marquee cast includes Phillipa Soo (Eliza in Hamilton), Patina Miller, who inhabits a diabolical witch persona, and Joshua Henry (Carousel) as a gobsmacked prince-in-love
with a long-tressed lass stuck in a tower.
What to do? What to do?
This brilliant production of Lear deBessonet’s
contemporary classic is certainly Tony-worthy,
Once wishes come true, then what?
Boredom, dissatisfaction, sorrow,
a little adultery, and disappointment.
Not to mention death’s terrible shroud
throwing shade over the kingdom and
Existential questions weave their way throughout the play, with threads of innocence unraveling.
The deeper you venture into the woods to learn harsh life lessons, the more human you become.
Life might seem less magical, but you’ll
never really be alone.
“There are giants in the sky!”
There are big, tall, terrible, awesome, scary wonderful
Giants in the sky!”
An awesome, wonderful one arrived there last November.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com