Throughout Lear deBessonet’s “Into the Woods,” there is always room for play.
In the veteran director’s new Broadway production, the musical’s words and lyrics take center stage. There are no “bells and whistles,” Stephanie J. Block told Broadway News at a recent press event. And for Block and her fellow cast members, deBessonet’s less showy perspective is making all the difference in the cast’s approach to performing in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical.
“It’s a heavy piece sometimes, it’s a big piece, it’s a daunting piece. And I think what deBessonet was able to do is keep it buoyant and joyful. And then we earn those moments of real weight,” said Krysta Rodriguez, the production’s current Cinderella.
“DeBessonet was always challenging us to be simpler and rely on the words. The words are taking you where you need to go.”
Sebastian Arcelus — playing the Baker now through Oct. 23 — echoed that sentiment, adding that deBessonet “encouraged us to meet the fairy tale head on, and go on that journey; the joy and the heartache, the agony and the triumph.”
“Her vision for the show is so elegantly simple in that we’re just pushed forward, trusting the words and lyrics, communing with the audience, and opening our hearts and souls much like we’re asking the audience to do when they step into the theater in order to be in this present moment,” continued Arcelus.
“Everyone is coming forward with all of themselves, all of the time.”
And that very much includes Arcelus’ real wife, currently doubling as his onstage wife, Stephanie J. Block.
Block told Broadway News that she’s “grateful” for the playful framework that deBessonet provided, but also that the director was willing to put the lyrics and storytelling in the spotlight without a busy design.
“Right off the bat, as soon as that curtain goes up, we’re not actors; we are people. And that, to me, sets the tone,” said Block. “I think bearing witness to that transformation of people-interpreter to artist-storyteller is what makes the magic of this piece.”
“It’s that humanity; the recognition of humanity. And then taking this three-hour journey as storytellers.”
For Block and Arcelus as The Baker’s Wife and The Baker, respectively, there’s an added layer of storytelling beyond the words and lyrics. The couple met while appearing in “Wicked,” sharing moments onstage but never storytelling together, Block said. And with the parallels between their onstage story and the life they’ve built together offstage since, this experience in the woods has “married both art and life,” she said.
“And that is a chemistry you can’t fabricate.”
“To get to look into her eyes — eyes that I know so well and that run so deep — with our shared life experiences, it does allow for us to dig even deeper into the story because we have a shared history that we’re able to tap into and have fun with,” Arcelus said.
That willingness to have fun and play onstage is also reflected in the behind-the-scenes relationships this cast has formed.
“There’s a whole lot of famous people in this building, and that’s fine,” Katy Geraghty, currently playing Little Red, said with a laugh.
“The first thing I walked into [during] a group [rehearsal] setting was Stephanie J. Block in the middle of singing ‘Moments in the Woods.’ It was crazy.”
Newcomer Geraghty said that while it’s “so cool” to be working alongside titans of the industry, there’s also much to be learned from them as humans.
“I’m really enjoying getting to know them,” she said. “We [often] forget about the people behind all of this work.”
Montego Glover, currently rotating in the role of The Witch with Patina Miller, shared similar praise for those she’s working with onstage and backstage.
“Everyone is present, wanting to do this work, wanting to do their best, and we’re all so appreciative of the gift that is this score, these lyrics, this book,” said Glover.
“It’s just gold.”
Even with cast members coming and going due to changes and pre-planned hiatuses, Rodriguez said the bonds remain strong.
“It really just leaves this revolving door of playing a game of tag. It never feels dangerous to play; it feels fun,” said Rodriguez.
She went on to share a story from the night of her cast’s first performance when castmate Joshua Henry shared some words of wisdom before the show. “This is your playground; this is your canvas. Paint from the corners to the wall to wherever,” she recalls Henry saying.
“Yes, this is an environment where joyfulness and playfulness are rewarded,” she said. “It’s not just perfection and nuance. The play is also as important.”