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    Saturday, December 02, 2023

    Review: With a perfect cast, Broadway has an 'Into the Woods' for the ages

    Sara Bareilles in "Into the Woods." (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

    NEW YORK — The scintillating new revival of "Into the Woods" is rendered so harmoniously and meticulously, you'll swear you even hear the punctuation marks in the lyrics. Here at the St. James Theatre, where the musical had its official Broadway opening Sunday night, the memory of the late Stephen Sondheim is honored in the best way possible: by actors who really know how to sing, and singers who really know how to act.

    They've all been encouraged by an inspired director, Lear deBessonet, to bring the bravura. That impulse on other occasions might bend the theatrical arc toward camp. But for the brand of musical comedy that Sondheim and book writer James Lapine were after — a storybook world of out-of-control anxiety — some rib-tickling personal dazzle is absolutely the right way to go.

    One after another, the members of the exceptional cast — Sara Bareilles, Phillipa Soo, Gavin Creel, Patina Miller, Brian d'Arcy James, Joshua Henry, and on and on — add funny new twists to fairy-tale characters old and completely new. There's no one who doesn't rise to this special occasion, the Broadway transfer of a concert version that originated earlier this year in the long-standing Encores series at City Center, the institution that birthed the 10,000-performance-plus revival of "Chicago."

    If you've never been to a production of "Into the Woods," which premiered on Broadway in 1987, this would be the ideal place to start. If you have, this would be the perfect place to renew the acquaintance. The physical format is basic: an onstage orchestra more than a dozen strong, conducted by Rob Berman, communicating the whimsical texture of Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations; a simple set design by David Rockwell, of platforms in front of and behind the band, and birch trees that descend for the forest quests, and shimmer with Tyler Micoleau's lighting as a Giant rattles the kingdom; and a cast, wittily costumed by Andrea Hood, delivering Lapine's lines and Sondheim's score with verve.

    The program lists two sound designers, Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann, which feels particularly apt, because the clarity with which Sondheim's lyrics reach our ears is perhaps double the norm. Have you ever experienced what I call audibility fatigue at the theater — the feeling of exhausted defeat that sets in when you lose half the words in musical amplification issues or garbled vocal execution? The opposite occurs in the St. James: Sondheim's poetry is rousingly conveyed, down to the last syllable of recited rhyme.

    "Into the Woods" is one of the best known and most often performed musicals in the Sondheim canon, but it's a family show only if you want to explain some of life's complexities to the little ones afterward. Lapine and Sondheim devise a kingdom of wishers: a childless baker (d'Arcy James) and his wife (Bareilles); a brutalized Cinderella (Soo); a penniless homemaker (Aymee Garcia) and her son, Jack, of "Beanstalk" fame (Cole Thompson); a wizened witch (Miller) living under a curse. The writers tie up almost everything in a pretty bow when the wish list is filled by the end of Act 1 — then rip the bow to shreds in Act 2.

    No one emerges unscathed. "Wishes may bring problems such that you regret them," goes the second-act opener, "better that, though, than to never get them." The story follows our universal passage from childhood to adulthood. We are cast out of the land of make-believe and into a world of tragic consequences. As the kingdom unravels, beset by that vengeful Giant (Annie Golden), characters die, turn on each other, and become more and more confused. Life is a riddle, but not always the amusing kind.

    The show's final sequences have been forced into a curious and not entirely persuasive moral; then again, a muddle of things may in the end be the best we mortals can expect. Still, Lapine and Sondheim create so many embraceable characters, and the score is so lovely, that any concerns about plotting become minor. And that is especially true in a version of "Into the Woods" that fields nothing but champions. Bareilles, for example, is a natural as the Baker's Wife: The performance is effortlessly warm and funny, an embodiment of the independent-mindedness and humility that characterize the best of us.

    Creel, in the traditional double role of Wolf and Cinderella's Prince, summons his inner ham with a fully baked comic virtuosity; "Agony" and its reprise, both sung with Rapunzel's Prince, portrayed by a delightfully self-adoring Henry, are the best I've ever heard. They belong in an "Into the Woods" Hall of Fame along with Julia Lester, as an uber-confident, rough-and-ready Little Red Riding Hood; Soo, breathing insouciant charm into a mellifluous Cinderella; and Miller, singing "Stay With Me" sweetly and yet sustaining the Witch's air of menacing authority.

    Cinderella's retinue (Nancy Opel as the Stepmother, plus Brooke Ishibashi, Ta'Nika Gibson, David Turner and Albert Guerzon) is a vivid side show, and David Patrick Kelly is an inspired choice as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. Two outstanding props must also be mentioned: the Giant's imposing oversize footwear, and more crucially, Milky White as an emotion-racked puppet cow, operated hilariously at my performance by Cameron Johnson. It must be noted that if the Tony Awards were ever to divide acting categories into dairy and nondairy, Milky White would be a moo-in.

    The final applause belongs to the composer, who died in November but whose memory infuses every scene. "Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good," go the lyrics in "No One Is Alone." Most certainly, Sondheim has not left for good.

    Joshua Henry, left, and Gavin Creel as the princes in "Into the Woods." (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
    Patina Miller in "Into the Woods." (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

    Did you know?

    Gavin Creel, who is starring in the current production of "Into the Woods" on Broadway, will perform later this month at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

    Creel is developing his own theatrical concert piece, "Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice," during the center's National Music Theater Conference. He was inspired to write it by the hours he spent wandering through the world-renowned collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Creel will perform staged readings of "Walk on Through" at 7 p.m. July 30 and Aug. 5, and 8 p.m. Aug. 3 at the O'Neill. Tickets are $30. Visit www.theoneill.org.

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