Sara Bareilles in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’: Theater Review (2022)

Of all the canonical musicals left behind by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods perhaps more than any other lends itself to elaborate design treatment, with its pile-up of fairy-tale characters both high- and low-born and its forest setting yielding equal parts enchantment and disillusionment. Recent New York productions have painstakingly conjured that storybook environment with scenic splendor or crafty props, while Rob Marshall’s starry 2014 film was a sumptuous blend of Brothers Grimm and Disney aesthetics. But the 1987 show about the uneasy awakening that follows “happily ever after” works just as well in a stripped-down presentation, putting the emphasis on the questioning revisionism of James Lapine’s libretto and Sondheim’s lyrics.

That’s the case with Lear deBessonet’s gorgeous production, which began as a semi-staged concert in the Encores! series this spring and now moves to Broadway for a limited 8-week run, with a mix of superlative original cast and sparkling new additions. Into the Woods is arguably the most humorous of Sondheim’s shows, and this ensemble of some of New York’s finest musical-theater talents has a ball playing up the comedy. But the merriment is never at the expense of the characters’ fragile humanity or the material’s poignancy.

The musical throws together characters from Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, with not one but two Princes looking to wed, a Witch anxious to break a curse and a Baker and his Wife, desperate for a child. They express their desires and see them fulfilled in the scampering first act, before harsh reality comes crashing down in Act II to shatter their bliss as they are forced to re-evaluate their choices and consider not just their own fates but that of their community. It asks what happens when we get what we want but still want more; when fantasy dissolves, leaving disappointment; and whether the cost of our dreams outweighs the rewards.

Questions of love and justice, courage and cunning, liberty and loss are considered, echoing the ways in which all of us, at some point in life, venture “into the woods” and occasionally “stray from the path,” courting danger to ourselves and others. If that sounds like ‘80s postmodern deconstruction or something out of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, to some degree it is, but deBessonet and her cast balance the light and dark, the playful and thoughtful sides of the material with pleasing delicacy, ultimately offering restorative evidence of how we take tragedy on board and grow from it by learning to forgive ourselves and care for one another.

A good part of that humanistic core comes from the ideal casting of the Baker and his Wife, played with winning chemistry by stage stalwart Brian d’Arcy James and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who has demonstrated her musical-theater bona fides in her own show, Waitress, as well as in the role of Mary Magdalene in NBC’s 2018 live TV presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar. And her considerable comedy skills appear to have been sharpened by her work on Girls5eva.

There’s real soulfulness in their connection and in the shared longing for a child that so saddens them it compels them to make questionable moral decisions. Their Act I song, “It Takes Two,” is a touching affirmation of a couple rediscovering one another. Yet even when their hopes are answered they are left incomplete, their conflicted feelings explored in two of the production’s standout second-act numbers — the Baker’s Wife’s “Moments in the Woods,” which ponders the limited opportunities of a life that is always “or,” too seldom “and”; and the Baker’s “No More,” a broken rejection of eternal want. Bareilles and d’Arcy James dig into the existential questions of those introspective songs with vulnerability that cuts deeper because for so long they’ve been giddy with the excitement of what magic can bring.

Their quest — the central journey among a handful of arcs that give this show its brisk forward momentum — is a series of challenges set for them by their crotchety neighbor, the Witch (Patina Miller). In order to break the spell of their childlessness, she sends them to the woods to fetch “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold,” giving them beans from her garden with which to bargain. The Witch’s hidden motive is to break her own curse, turning her back from a withered hag to her former youth and beauty.

Miller, who’s been absent from Broadway since her Tony-winning role as the Leading Player in Pippin, spends much of the first act in a grotesque mask, a fright wig, a frowzy cloak and talons, relishing her character’s blithe cruelty while not completely hiding her underlying desperation. Her transformation is a fabulous diva makeover that puts her in a purple gown and cape (with pantsuit option), giving her sleek black hair and a toned physique to match her glam wardrobe. But in a cautionary tale that warns to be careful what you wish for, the external enhancements come at the cost of her powers, meaning that when the fairy tale sours, she’s no better off than anyone else in the woods to deal with disaster.

That cohort includes Cinderella (Phillipa Soo), who yearns to escape her drudgery and go to the palace festival, then has second thoughts when her Prince (Gavin Creel) comes on strong, but she marries him anyway. Little Red (Julia Lester) is off to stay with her Granny (Annie Golden), both of them looking like easy prey for a lascivious Wolf (Creel again) until the Baker stumbles onto the scene. Gentle lad Jack (Cole Thompson) is ordered by his weary Mother (Aymee Garcia) to sell his beloved Milky White, given that the sorry-looking cow no longer produces milk. And Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), locked in a tower, has been sharing her lilting song and her long golden braid solely with the Witch until her own Prince (Joshua Henry) wanders along.

The mashup generates plenty of broad comedy, funny pratfalls and running gags to mirror the recurring musical motifs of “I Wish” and “Into the Woods,” so dexterously set up in the multi-strand prologue.

Comic highlights include the dandified Wolf’s “Hello, Little Girl,” with Creel making a pervy first impression before masking his unwholesome appetites behind a smooth soft-shoe routine. The actor is even more gloriously hammy as the vain and unashamedly shallow Prince (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” he later admits), making a hilarious team with Henry as his somewhat deferential brother on their posturing declaration duet, “Agony.” Henry is known primarily for dramatic roles, but his goofy nobility here makes you hope he strays into comedy more often. And that voice is magnificent.

Two gifted young newcomers, Lester and Thompson, both do their share of scene-stealing. Lester’s Little Red is all bratty millennial entitlement, greedily helping herself to sugary baked goods that no one believes are for Granny. Her “I Know Things Now” has never sounded so amusingly smug and her deadpan rejoinders to the grownups are priceless. Thompson’s Jack is her perfect counterpoint — a tender, adorably guileless kid even as he inadvertently brings chaos; his genuine awe as he sings “Giants in the Sky” is infectious, as is his devotion to Milky White.

The cow is one of a handful of captivating puppet designs by James Ortiz. You watch its doleful eyes and expressive body movement with the same attention given to all the major characters, as Cameron Johnson (covering for Kennedy Kanagawa at the performance reviewed) deftly handles its physical and vocal requirements. The challenge of animating this wordless principal character has been met with any number of concepts in Into the Woods productions over the years, and this is possibly the most disarming way I’ve ever seen the cow brought to life. The crowd laps up its every appearance.

The other key player is Soo’s Cinderella, one of her best roles since her shattering performance as the original Eliza in Hamilton. She’s pure of heart but endearingly daffy, talking to birds (more lovely work from Ortiz), tripping frantically through the woods on one golden slipper and stopping to empathize with the Baker’s Wife over her quest, even while refusing to give up the shoe. Soo’s crystalline soprano sounds lighter than air on Cinderella’s ambivalent self-examination, “On the Steps of the Palace,” and her vocals on “No One is Alone” make that solemn reminder of the comforts of solidarity intensely moving.

The encroaching shadow of what’s to come pierces the mirth throughout, and the destruction wrought by the vengeful wife of a slain Giant — voiced by the invaluable Golden and visualized with marvelous inventiveness that’s best left as a surprise — is matched by the individual reckonings of each character. Those experiences also become a collective awakening, channeled in the emotionally charged closing number, “Children Will Listen,” commandingly led by Miller’s Witch. The character’s other big songs, “Stay with Me,” “Witch’s Lament” and “Last Midnight,” all are performed by Miller with comparable surging feeling.

David Rockwell’s simple but effective design initially consists of dollhouse versions of the homes of Cinderella, the Baker and Jack, suspended above their respective identifying props — a bucket, a pastry cart and a milking stool. But even those minimal elements disappear to be replaced by birch trunks and a shifting moon at the back of music director Rob Berman’s 14-piece orchestra, seated onstage behind the playing space. Hearing Jonathan Tunick’s shimmering orchestrations played — and sung — so exquisitely serves as a wonderful tribute to Sondheim, whose death last November left Broadway with an inconsolable sense of loss echoed in the somber moments of this show.

Venue: St. James Theatre, New York
Cast: Sara Bareilles, Brian d’Arcy James, Patina Miller, Phillipa Soo, Gavin Creel, Joshua Henry, Julia Lester, Cole Thompson, David Patrick Kelly, Annie Golden, Nancy Opel, Aymee Garcia, Ta’Nika Gibson, Albert Guerzon, Brooke Ishibashi, Kennedy Kanagawa, David Turner, Alysia Velez
Director: Lear deBessonet
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Andrea Hood
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designers: Scott Lehrer, Alex Neumann
Puppet designer: James Ortiz
Music director: Rob Berman
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Executive producer: Nicole Kastrinos
Presented by Jujamcyn Theaters, Jordan Roth, New York City Center, Daryl Roth, Hunter Arnold, Concord Theatricals, Nicole Eisenberg, Jessica R. Jenen, Michael Cassel Group, ShowTown Productions, Armstrong, Gold & Ross

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