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Off Broadway Reviews

Into the Woods

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 6, 2022

Gavin Creel and Julia Lester
Photo by Joan Marcus
The eminently polished Encores! production of Into the Woods at New York City Center has been dedicated to the musical's composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But truly, it could just as well be dedicated to long-time music director Rob Berman, who is stepping down from the podium where he has held glorious sway since 2008.

You can read more about Berman in Brian Scott Lipton's fine article in the show's Playbill, but one thing that stands out from that piece is a quote from the conductor, in which he takes particular delight in ending his tenure with Into the Woods, a show he says is "about the importance of community." It is that, but, as the character of Jack's mother (here played by Ann Harada) says in another context, Into the Woods is about "a lot of things," including parental abuse and neglect, self-justified lies, foolishness, greed, misogyny, infidelity, and sacrifice of self and of others. By all means, bring the kids for the show's fairy-tale roots (there were plenty of young children in the audience at the performance I attended), but don't be surprised if they have questions afterwards.

Since I mention bringing the kids, I should point out that the production, confidently directed by Lear deBessonet and performed by a starry cast, does demand a hefty attention span, running as it does to close to three hours, with every minute devoted to giving us the full story as laid out by bookwriter James Lapine.

Act I is all fairy tale as we meet up with familiar characters: Jack from "Jack and the Beanstalk," Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel and the Witch. Their well-known stories intermix in Lapine's smartly-written Tony-winning script. The glue that holds the disparate parts together is a pair of characters created by Lapine: the Baker and the Baker's Wife, a couple whose longing to have a child triggers the plot.

Act I begins with the words "Once Upon a Time" and ends, after a few adventures in the woods, with everyone seemingly enjoying their "happily ever after" promised by the fairy-tale format. But then, in Act II, things start going south as the one-dimensional characters become complicated human beings for whom Rob Berman's notion of "the importance of community" is the only thing that can save them from themselves and from a revenge-seeking giant.

Enough about the plot. What can I say about the cast except for "wow?" Encores! has outdone itself by bringing in a stellar group of actors boasting exceptionally fine achievement in the world of theater and elsewhere. The A+ list of talented performers starts with Sara Bareilles, confident, funny, and heartwarming as the Baker's Wife. She is perfectly matched with Neil Patrick Harris (a replacement for the originally scheduled Christian Borle) as The Baker, a man conflicted and uncertain about how to handle his responsibilities as a husband, father, and son. Denée Benton gives us a lovely Cinderella against Gavin Creel's self-important Prince ("I was raised to be charming, not sincere"), who also plays the equally charming, if predatory, dancing Wolf (choreography by Lorin Latarro). Julia Lester, making her New York theater debut, is a wonderfully annoying Little Red Riding Hood. Cole Thompson is delightfully dimwitted as Jack. Shereen Pimentel (Maria in the sadly halted production of West Side Story that never returned after Broadway reopened) is excellent as the driven-to-madness Rapunzel.

Heather Headley
Photo by Joan Marcus
As for the Witch, it is always interesting to see how everyone who has played this role finds a way to make it their own. And so it is with Heather Headley, who starts out quietly menacing in a traditionally witchy way, and then grows increasingly and scarily human before our eyes, first as the possessive, manipulative child-destroying parent ("Stay With Me"), and then later in all of her disdainful fury ("Witch's Lament" and "Last Midnight"). She is a marvel as she unleashes the power of her incomparable singing voice.

Let me also praise the aforementioned Ann Harada, as Jack's Mother; the always grand Annie Golden juggling three roles, including the harrowing voice of the giant; and David Patrick Kelly as the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, who cryptically but wisely points out that our parents "die, but they don't." And thumbs up to Jason Forbach, who at the performance I attended stepped into the role of Rapunzel's Prince, the brother of Cinderella's Prince, as understudy for Jordan Donica (if unwell, wishing Donica a speedy recovery!). Forbach and Creel did a first-class job performing "Agony" together.

As is always the case with Encores! production, this is semi-staged. Nevertheless, the scenic design (trees everywhere) by David Rockwell is perfectly in tune with the story and makes great use of the space, particularly since the entire orchestra is up there as well, performing Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations. Andrea Hood has, likewise, provided a lovely array of costumes. Saving the cream for last, let me heap praise on the delightful scene-stealing Milky White the cow (puppetry by James Ortiz), gloriously brought to life by Kennedy Kanagawa.

Encores! has had a bumpy season, and it has become increasingly apparent that its long-established mission of giving us lesser-known older Broadway shows, following a deep dive through archives for original orchestrations and production notes, is undergoing changes. But anyone who doubts the ability of the Encores! experience to thrill should spring for a ticket to this classy and thoroughly enjoyable production of Into the Woods.

Into the Woods
Through May 15, 2022
New York City Center, 131 W 55th St, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: