Two other standouts that enhanced the whole is the always phenomenal Neil Patrick Harris (Broadway’s Hedwig) as the Baker, who unearths unknown humor and grief in every aspect of the storyline, while also holding tight to a perfect partner in Sara Bareilles (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar), who gives us a Baker’s Wife who is rich in maternal emotional depth, yet filled with sardonic charm. They both seem to carry a complex desperation to bear a child, while forever finding each other within the trouble and complexities. Bareilles is a gifted earthy singer, who always can find the authentic heart and deep need in her rich vocals, but when it comes to Sondheim, I wasn’t quite sure if she would be able to find her way into these woods. Most delightfully, she does, radiating an authentic fractious relationship from within, giving us a couple who can bicker, stray, and fight, and still be basically ok. That’s a powerful statement, one that should never be taken lightly.
This art, something that is explained to the wonderfully engaging Julia Lester (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series“) as the scene-stealing greedy Red Riding Hood, finds a simple truth in the dynamic and only secures their parenting relationship as more meaningful than first realized. Under that red cape, we find a young female force not to be toyed with, especially when her protective energy is unleashed. What’s missing a bit, and here is my only real complaint with the show in general, is her lusty attraction to the devilish wolf, played appealingly, but not seductively enough by Gavin Creel (Broadway’s she loves me; Hello, Dolly!) is never fully realized or examined. It’s an entertainingly festive scene that radiates pure theatrical pleasure in the acrobatics of the engagement, but little of the sexual energy that I think those two could have bitten into. Much like many moments in this sly sexual musical. When Creel dons the exquisite frock to play the Prince who captivatingly seduces the Baker’s Wife in ‘Any Moment‘, he’s a joy to behold, but not so seductive. He says it’s for love, but we can tell it’s really for something quite different. And it isn’t exactly oozing carnalities in this production. Maybe for him, it’s ego-driven? External validation? Regardless, it’s fun, but not so complex or deep.
Another splendid moment is delivered by Denée Benton (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet) who runs away with the confused dynamics of a kind Cinderella with a complex prince chasing her through the woods. She stumbles most enchantingly on every entrance, and her charming phrasing of ‘On the Steps of the Palace‘does the job lovingly in Act One, but it is really in Act Two where she finds her footing, so to speak, unleashing the real girl within and the tenderness she can deliver. The same could be said for Harris, who plays it up in Act One, having the time of his life running through the woods, but it is in Act Two where we all of a sudden find ourselves tearing up as he struggles to find his place in this new world. It’s a tremendous achievement, and he works more magic than we ever expected to come our way.
The opposite could be said of Jack, played solidly by a very well-voiced Cole Thompson (just check out that video up above) who finds an innocence that almost makes us feel most fatherly in Act One. He’s trying so hard to grow up before our eyes. Yet, somehow he never really manages to expand on his take on the boy as the whole musical piece, overall, attempts to find greater maturity in Act Two. He is pricelessly funny though in his authentic honesty, particularly when he talks of his two best friends, a cow and a harp, to the exasperated sigh of his Mother, hilariously portrayed by the always excellent Ann Harada (CSC’s Pacific Overtures; “Schmigadoon”). Delivering a deliciously funny counterpoint to Jack, she, like almost every fine performer in this magical musical, gives us humor and charm that feels perfectly attuned to this straight-shooting sunny revival. She’s one of the gold egg treasures of the piece, not seen enough, but glistening when on stage.
ace Into The Woods reacts to the culminating Giant dilemma set before them in Act Two, the Giant’s Wife, wonderfully voiced by the greatly loved Annie Golden (off-Broadway’s Broadway Bounty Hunter) – who also plays a most wonderful Grandmother and Cinderella’s Mother, brings about the crashing of everyone’s wish with a threatening stomp. Death, loss, and grievance are grappled with, emphasized by two large not-so-effective giant shoes, stomping their way clumsily about. It’s one of the only weakly orchestrated visuals inside this inventive staging with puppets designed by James Ortiz (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), scenic design by David Rockwell (Broadway’s Local Hero), lighting by Tyler Micoleau (Broadway’s american buffalo), and sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s The Music Man). The cow, Milky White, on the other hand, is tremendously well-executed (literally), beautifully brought to life (and death, and life again) by the inventive and tuned in Kennedy Kanagawa (Keen Co.’s Adventurephile) who, in a sharp moment of wit, assists the witch in such a wonderful moment of pure stage magic. This is what theater is all about, as my friend Cheryl would say. That moment, and it shines bright thanks to that inventive fun formulation and conviction to the art of theatre.
Jordan Donica (Broadway’s My Fair Lady), who was first announced to play Rapunzel’s Prince opposite the very fine Shereen Pimentel (Broadway’s West Side Story) as Rapunzel, was unfortunately replaced on the night I attended. In the performance I saw, the prince was played, well, quite princely, by the wonderful Jason Forbach (Broadway’s Wretched). Stepping in to the part, he grandly delivered, most notably opposite Creel in the wonderfully silly “Agony”. The others within this strong cast; Ta’Nika Gibson (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud) as Lucinda, Albert Guerzon (Broadway’s Ghost) as Cinderella’s Father, Brooke Ishibashi (La Jolla’s To the Yellow House), Lauren Mitchell, an original Broadway cast member of Into the Woodsas Cinderella’s Stepmother, and the very sharp David Turner (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…) as the Steward, find their light and joy inside, delivering, like all the others, perfect renditions of this fine musical by Stephen Sondheim with a book by James Lapine.
Featuring the choreography by Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s Mrs. Doubtfire) within the intricate plots of both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, the direction sweetly explores the true-life consequences of the characters’ wishes and dreams, including all of the terrifying fears of separation and aloneness in a beautifully voiced production. Into the Woods finds its centeredness within the piece and unveils a new Encores! tradition; celebrating the community-building potential of iconic American musicals by ushering in a multigenerational community chorus of New York City seniors and public-school students for a big-lunged finale that highlights the many ways theater can connect us across time.
All the layers of moralistic familial conflict and connection unfold with subtle surprising care under the threat of a dead giant’s familial vengeance. Everyone is someone’s child, they tell us, and revenge can bounce along hurting more and more for eternity if we let it. Harris beautifully finds the heart of the piece, reminding us of what loss and love can feel like, as well as what family means in the end. Into the Woods does the job beautifully, reformulating and expanding so we can understand the idea that fairytales are often childhood fears played out to understand and resolve issues within, much like dreams and nightmares. When the long-lost father, played by David Patrick Kelly (Broadway’s Ounce), the same actor as the Narrator, keeps reappearing, it all makes sense, even when being mysterious. A happy ending after all, in a way, one that lives solidly in the real world and in our tear-filled eyes. It’s no surprise this beautifully crafted production found its way to New York City Center’s Encores! series a few years after it gloriously played in Central Park and also London’s Regent’s Park, and I was glad to be there to welcome it.