Like most folks who lay claim to being a former theater kid, a solid portion of my childhood was spent watching a grainy PBS taping of “Into the Woods” on YouTube. There is at least a decade’s worth of distance between those early viewings and the current Broadway production mounted at the St. James Theatre, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s mythical musical remains a delight. The only difference is my interpretation of it. As a child, “Into the Woods” taught me the difference between good and evil. As an adult, it threw that same lesson away. The Witch is more complicated this go around: not a looming figure haunting the other characters’ tales, but a passionate mother with the vengeance of any woman who has been wronged. She is no longer the “bad guy” who my binary memories are tempted to paint her as. In fact, no one in the musical is.
Those unfamiliar with the show’s plot are likely familiar with its source material. A mélange of well-known Grimm Brothers stories (“Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood”) intersect to form a new tale. Each of the characters has desires (children, wealth, marriage) that they spend the first act acquiring and the second lamenting because of the ways they obtained or abused them (deceit, theft, betrayal). In pursuit of happily ever after, the line between right and wrong blurs.
This “Into the Woods” is lifted from the 2022 New York City Center Encores! production. Even the Encores! orchestra reprises its role under the baton of Rob Berman. Instrumentalists usher Sondheim’s music to life from upstage, cloaked in black like a shadow of the actors before them. However, those expecting the other half of the stage to materialize lush forests or glimmering castles will be disappointed. In true Encores! fashion, the show takes place on a largely bare-bones set that’s adorned only slightly with three miniature suspended buildings and foliage-less trees. Often the actors are cramped downstage, stunted by linear movements in and out of each other’s storyline. The upside, of course, is we are that much closer to the best cast on Broadway.
Patina Miller as the Witch is so good that I want to add a “t” to the end of the adjective. Miller is in masterful control of the story, the audience and her own spidery, swaggerful performance. Julia Lester is innocent with a violent streak, excitable but also deadpan, every contradicting choice a hysterical delight. Phillipa Soo is Cinderella — beautiful, clumsy, warm to humans and birds alike. Cole Thompson is a cherubic Jack, Aymee Garcia his worrisome mother. Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry go tête-à-tête for the most vain prince. (Creel as Cinderella’s pursuer is given more to work with than Henry as Rapunzel’s.) Brian d’Arcy James and Sara Bareilles meld crystalline voices as the Baker and his wife. The score is just as sprightly and lyrics as topsy-turvy as they have always been, but a unique joy comes from watching these Broadway powerhouses earnestly surrender to Sondheim’s playfulness.
Lear deBessonet, director of this staging, does not veer far from Sondheim and Lapine’s original beat — but when a classic work returns for a contemporary audience, there is always a shift. The work is subjected to our national mind and the problems plaguing it: notably here, abortion, and the recent rescission of our constitutional right to have one. In the first act, Jack’s mother asks the Baker’s wife if she has children. When she’s told no, Jack’s mother states plainly, “That’s okay, too.” Those three words earned roars of applause at the performance I attended.
In 1986, the year “Into the Woods” premiered, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. The vote was narrow, 5-4, but former Justice Harry Andrew Blackmun asserted: For families, “the Constitution embodies a promise that a certain private sphere of individual liberty will be kept largely beyond the reach of government.” Individual liberty requires individual sacrifice. And while the Baker and his wife disavow certain morals to get the child they want, we never lose sight of the fact that parenthood is their choice. The connection is an interesting enough one for those looking to cull something deeper from this revival.
Regardless, the excitement that ballooned in the audience tells me that most were there in pursuit of nostalgic pleasure, nothing more. A young girl pranced through the aisles dressed as Little Red. An elderly couple giggled and gripped one another as the princes bellowed the lyrics to “Agony.” Jack’s emaciated cow Milky White had my seat neighbors in stitches. Sondheim and Lapine’s musical has etched its way into the hearts of generations of musical-theater lovers who are now making their way to the St. James. These woods are only with us for eight weeks. Head into them.
“Into the Woods” opened at the St. James Theatre on July 10, 2022.
Review Photo: Matt Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
Creative: Book by James Lapine; Music by Stephen Sondheim; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; with The Encores! Orchestra, music direction by Rob Berman; Directed by Lear deBessonet; Choreographed by Lorin Latarro; Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Andrea Hood; Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann
Producers: Jujamcyn Theaters, Jordan Roth, New York City Center, Hunter Arnold, Nicole Eisenberg, Michael Cassel Group, Jessica R. Jenen, Daryl Roth, ShowTown Productions and Armstrong, and Gold & Ross
Cast: Sara Bareilles, Brian d’Arcy James, Patina Miller, Phillipa Soo, Gavin Creel, Joshua Henry, Jason Forbach, Aymee Garcia, Ta’Nika Gibson, Annie Golden, Albert Guerzon, Brooke Ishibashi, Cameron Johnson, Kennedy Kanagawa, David Patrick Kelly, Julia Lester, Mary Kate Moore, Nancy Opel, Cole Thompson, David Turner, Alysia Velez, Delphi Borich , Felicia Curry , Alexander Joseph Grayson , Paul Kreppel , Diane Phelan and Lucia Spina