Sondheim’s brilliant “Into the Woods” turns kids’ fairy tales into musical morality message for adults

By Lucy Komisar

Kennedy Kanagawa as Milky White the cow, photo Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

When you’re talking about a musical theater genius such as Stephen Sondheim, it’s hard to pick favorites among his oeuvres, but “Into the Woods” is high on the list. Because with Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and James Lapine’s book, this staging by Lear deBessonet infuses joy. Because Sondheim-Lapine (who directed the original in 1987) take some vintage western fairy tales and, mining recognition for surprise, turn them magically into witty morality tales.

Jack & the Beanstalk: The witch has ordered the Baker and his wife to collect designated objects and they would get a child. Sara Bareilles a delight as the Baker’s wife, with charm and an appealing soprano, cleverly trades beans for a cow (a great cow puppet) explaining “the end justifies the beans.” (Brian D’Arcy James who normally plays the Baker and Cole Thompson who play Jack were out.)

Patina Miller is the witch, though this 2nd act photo cuts out her scary side, photo Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Fairy tales were supposed to set morality for kids; this does it for adults, with grown-up twists. A stellar cast aided by bit of camp, some vaudeville, and clever hokey puppets do the trick. Along with some mixing of the stories. All in a wood of giant white birch trees.

Rapunzel: My favorite performer is the aggressive, in-your-face witch (Patina Miller) who has a terrific soprano and wicked smile as she pleads with Rapunzel (Alysia Velez, of an excellent voice) to “stay with me” instead trying to get out of the tower and meet her prince.

Philippa Soo as Cinderella, Gavin Creel as the prince, (front) Nancy Opel as mom and sisters, note the palace for sale, photo Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Little Red Riding Hood: Making clear who the bad guys are, the lascivious slightly campy wolf (Gavin Creel) sprinkles salt on the arm of set up-to-be-eaten Red, played by very funny understudy Delphi Borich. (Julia Lester who normally plays Red was out.)

Cinderella:  Philippa Soo pulls us into the story of the naïve Cinderella, who has a lot of problems dealing with her glass slipper, and I liked her cackly sisters.

The surprises come in the second act: be careful what you wish for. The baker and his wife have a baby, but the wife now wants more room in the house!

Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s wife, photo Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The two princes (Cinderella’s Gavin Creel and Rapunzel’s Joshua Henry) do a hokey agony duet, complaining that they are committed to their ladies but there are others out there. Maybe Snow White, though it turns out a dwarf is standing guard. Cinderella’s prince declares “It’s agony not to know what you miss. Now back to my wife!” Creel is a charmer with a great voice and a jagged vaudeville style.

But then in the woods he kisses the Baker’s wife. “Foolishness can happen in the woods.” He turns out to be a cad, a two-timer. He admits he strayed. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Best line in the play! No longer a kids’ story!

Then of course there’s the problem of the giant, whose castle was invaded by Jack, who stole some loot. We never see the giant, just some huge woman’s boots that angrily clomp on people’s homes on the ground.

The giant’s boots marching against the fairy tale characters, photo Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

What do ‘the woods’ represent? After the giant stomps, the locals blame the beans, blame each other. Or how do you ignore a witch’s curse, wolves, one-thing-leads-to-another disaster? The answers proposed is that no one is alone, people make mistakes. (Viz the princes.) Does it mean people are not meant to battle giants? Depends on how you define giants. But maybe the real issue Sondheim-Lapine present is about peoples’ moral choices.

Into the Woods.” Book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The St. James Theatre 246 W 44th St, NYC. Runtime 2hrs45. Opened July 10, 2022; closes October 16th, with original cast through Sept 4th, 2022. Extended to Jan 8, 2023. Review on New York Theatre Wire.

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