Regional Reviews: Boston
Into the Woods
So it's wonderful to see this musical resurface in a production that highlights the main reasons it still enchants: bookwriter James Lapine's endearing characters and the ways they intersect and influence each others' stories, and the sparking wit and whimsy of Sondheim's music and lyrics.
This national touring production of Into the Woods, directed with panache by Lear deBessonet, is in Boston at the Emerson Colonial Theatre through April 3. DeBessonet's take on the Sondheim-Lapine classic began in May 2022 as a fully staged concert at New York City Center Encores!, then transferred to a Broadway run. You may miss the magic of a more elaborate physical production. But the real spell is cast by Sondheim's score, which asks the performers to power through dexterous feats of rhyme and rhythm with ease.
Here, the woods are indeed just trees, surrounding an on-stage orchestra whose delicate playing evokes the type of chamber orchestra a prince might hire for a ball. It's a pleasure to hear Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations in such crisp detail, and music director and conductor John Bell makes space for each actor to savor the small nuances vital to Sondheim's jaunty, haunting melodies.
For the uninitiated, the premise is as follows: Several familiar fairy-tale characters (Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red Ridinghood among them) leave their homes in search of their deepest wish. Along the way to getting their wish, they learn a few lessons. For Cinderella, who pines for the opportunity to attend the festival, getting to meet the prince is "all very strange." Little Red, who survives a run-in with a Wolf on the way to Granny's house, learns that "Nice is different than good." Woven into these fairy tales are two original characters: an unnamed Baker and his wife, who wish desperately for a child but cannot conceive until a spell cast by the Witch next door is broken.
Off they go into the woods, to break the spell before the third midnight and make their wish come true. But as Lapine and Sondheim teach us, there's always more to the story. Jack's journey up the beanstalk causes a vengeful giant to descend from the sky and wreak havoc in the land, posing an existential threat to these characters' happily-ever-afters. With their perfect world suddenly shattered, everyone in the kingdom must decide whether to join forces to stop the giant.
DeBessonet's clear-eyed approach to the story is refreshing. Her actors have the flexibility to find their own peculiar, passing moments, and the full ensemble appears to be having a ball getting to play in Sondheim and Lapine's sandbox. Many of the actors performed these roles on Broadway last year before joining the tour.
The heart and soul of this production is Stephanie J. Block, who plays the Baker's Wife. As our overworked, under-praised heroine, Block plays the role with wry, self-deprecating humor, very much in the spirit of Joanna Gleason's original cast performance. Block is armed with a brassy belt that she occasionally unleashes at its full power, notably at the end of her second-act solo, "Moments in the Woods." But there's a clear yearning underneath; her character's desperation is palpable, and her ultimate fate deeply heartbreaking. Opposite is Block's real-life husband Sebastian Arcelus as a sturdy Baker, who provides stability and balance to Block's vulnerability. [Note: Block and Arcelus will not perform March 28-April 2.]
Meanwhile, Katy Geraghty is a standout as the sardonic, street-smart Little Red Ridinghood, whose prowess with a hunting knife is second to none. Gavin Creel makes a meal of Cinderella's Prince, a man-child "raised to be charming, not sincere," with nearly every entrance and exit yielding well-earned applause. His dandified Wolf is also delicious. Creel and Jason Forbach (Rapunzel's Prince) are irresistible each time they duet, in foppish mock-anguish over the "Agony" of unrequited love. I also want to praise Diane Phelan's beautifully sung Cinderella, David Patrick Kelly's spry Narrator, and Cole Thompson's energetic Jack.
The biggest ham, of course, is the cow: Milky White, brought to life by Kennedy Kanagawa, whose expert puppeteering makes the cow a scene-stealer every minute they're on stage.
My one bittersweet note of this streamlined staging is that it disproportionately affects the Witch, who could use a little more magic. I hoped for a more creative solution for her transformation and her ominous appearances and disappearances throughout the night. (While designer Andrea Hood's colorful costumes are mostly striking, the Witch's first-act costume is plain and lacks menace.) So, despite Montego Glover's best efforts, the Witch doesn't register as powerfully until she is restored to her youthful, non-magical self. Glover does make the most of the show-stopping "Last Midnight," a blistering fare-thee-well to a community that is, in her words, "not good... not bad... just nice."
When the original Broadway production opened in 1987, there was speculation (despite the authors' denial) that the destruction wrought by the giant was a metaphor for the devastating AIDS crisis. Each generation likely finds its own resonance in Into the Woods; to me, the show feels especially apt this month, on the third anniversary of a pandemic that has radically transformed our day-to-day life and our sense of unity in the face of crisis. We feel it as the community turns on itself in the giant's wake. We hear the silence of those who will not take action in the Stepmother's rationale for running away: "Some people are cut out to battle giants, and others are not."
Yet, more than ever, I really understood Cinderella's final "I wish"–that feeling of hope that can't be extinguished even after the storm. That's where this beautiful production leaves you, wishing for more, but also (to quote Sondheim) "glad for the moment that we had."
Into the Woods runs through April 2, 2023, at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St, Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit emersoncolonialtheatre.com, call 888-616-0272, or visit the box office. For more information on the tour, visit intothewoodsbway.com.