Where was I was on July 9th when “Into the Woods” opened at the St. James Theater? I have no idea, and no excuse for not having been there when this revival of Stephen Sondheim’s whimsical and serious musical opened on Broadway after a run at City Center’s Encores. Maybe I thought, oh, you know it, you were there in 1987, and then there was the movie…
But you know, you haven’t seen “Into the Woods” until you’ve experienced this pared down, incredibly inventive version that lets James Lapine’s wonderful book and Sondheim’s gorgeous score step forward from its previously busy sets. Plus, now we’ve got a cast of Broadway all-stars, mostly the young heroes of The Great White Way, the best of the current generation, just sublimely throwing down.
“Into the Woods” just got extended until October 16th, but some of the cast will change after September 4th. Either way, it’s the gift you must give yourself.
First up we have Brian D’Arcy James and Sara Bareilles as the Baker and his wife. Patina Miller is The Witch, Phillippa Soo is Cinderella, Josh Henry is one of the two princes, Julia Lester is Little Red Riding Hood, and Cole Thompson is Jack. They are a dream team. At my matinee on Wednesday, the other prince was played by Jason Forbach, who had the part at Encores, was replaced by Gavin Creel, who was replaced by Cheyenne Jackson, who was out for our performance. Forbach is hilarious and very comfortable in the role.
Who steals this show? Patina Miller is the obvious answer. In Act I she’s frightening and cocky. In Act 2, she’s glamorous and sultry. She’s on TV shows but I avoid them because she doesn’t get to sing. Miller is a rock star. When the lights go down to start the show, the audience goes berserk screaming before a note is sung. Is it for Miller? Or D’Arcy James, who’s got Broadway, movie, and TV credits galore? Or Soo, who won the Tony for “Hamilton”? Or Henry, whose voice has brought him three Tony nominations plus he’s played Aaron Burr, too. Or is it just the show?
A lot of the audience knows the movie by now. Back when “Into the Woods” first opened in 1987, we knew nothing except it followed a number of Sondheim shows like the best one, “Sweeney Todd.” It seemed a little, uh, trivial. But in time its purpose grew. A bunch of characters we knew separately are first playing their own game of “Survivor” til they reach a happy ending with Act 1. What’s left for them? As with “Sunday in the Park with George,” we are about to get a profound answer about community, art, and love.
The new staging, with masterful scenic design by David Rockwell, eliminates the Beanstalk and the Giant in favor of cleverer pursuits. Maybe the old stage was just too cluttered but now the whole essence of “Into the Woods” comes through. We’re no longer looking for gimmicks, we’re able to savor the essence more than the Wolf ( who meets his demise early) gets to appreciate his short-lived meal of Red and her Grandma.
The result is the score becomes the main character, and you can’t wait to see what each of these Broadway bombers will do with their numbers. Most shows have their hits distributed throughout, or balanced from act to act. But “Into the Woods” is a curve ball. The last two numbers after two hours plus intermission and then some are’ “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.” They are Sondheim classics, they are not big brassy endings but gorgeous pleas. I was thinking, if Lapine’s story is a children’s book, you want to end on thoughtful notes so the kids will go to sleep now. The only difference here is that when the stage goes black, the audience erupts like it’s Beatlemania or Sinatra at the Paramount.
Can “Into the Woods” keep going all winter? Will the main cast stay? They have a lot of obligations elsewhere. But this would be the 2023 Tony winner for Best Revival of a Musical, and all these original cast will be celebrated with a parade next June.