A Sublime INTO THE WOODS Kicks Off A New Season — Review
It is fitting, if still a shame, that this revival of Into the Woods has foregone the tradition of a giant-sized boot adorning the facade of its theater. Lear DeBessonet’s pared-down staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s enduring classic, which transfers to the St James Theatre following a sold-out summer Encores! run, draws out the show’s heart by stripping it down, most insistently, to its basics. No big set; no fancy effects here. You will just have to imagine that boot.
In striping Woods down to its bare essentials, the very brilliant DeBessonet has crafted a near-perfect revival that breathes intoxicating new life into a masterpiece we barely realized needed new life at all. It is a remarkable evening, as effortlessly comforting as it is staggeringly heartbreaking.
Honestly, the production is so good that it’s oddly hard to review. That’s largely because there is no concept to analyze, no take to unpack. DeBessonet just does the show, as matter-of-factly as you’ve ever seen it done. No frills; no fuss: all heart.
As with a cogent Shakespeare or an expert O’Neill, this approach places Sondheim’s words above all else. Woods is some of the maestro’s most lyrically complex work, and at the St James you are hearing every delicious word–from the drippingly menacing “Hello, Little Girl,” to the warmly witty “It Takes Two,” to the jumpy, indecisive “On The Steps of the Palace.” Not a nuance gets lost, and thank God for that. I mean just come on now: “But then what if he knew/Who you were when you know/That you’re not what he thinks/That he wants?” That’s the good shit.
In drawing out the beating heart of a well-worn work, a dream cast doesn’t hurt. This ensemble here is unreal. Sara Bareilles is a luminous Baker’s Wife, endlessly patient yet desperate with longing. Phillipa Soo’s Cinderella is equally wondrous and, in addition to singing it impeccably, Soo finds a humane humor in the princess’s vacillations. Patina Miller makes a triumphant Broadway homecoming as the Witch, burning up the stage with a scorching rage that gives way to disquieting grief.
Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry are pitch-perfect as the cocky Princes, leaping farcically from one absurd pose into the next on every beat (the choreography, by Lorin Latarro, is expert). Julia Lester makes a thrilling Broadway debut as Little Red Ridinghood, finding hysterical variations on even the most familiar lines. Only Cole Thompson, as Jack, feels underpowered–his “Giants in the Sky” is technically proficient but does not find the layered meaning which his co-stars so skillfully unearth.
Basic though it is, David Rockwell’s scenic design is highly effective, letting actors and the esteemable Encores! orchestra comfortably share a vast and frightening forest. Each of Andrea Hood’s sumptuous costumes tell a story in and of themselves, whether the Princes’ garish coats or the Witch’s stunning second act dress, a harsh purple but no less striking for it.
The show’s devastating second act is always one hammer blow of emotion after another, but in this staging, the apex of devastation comes with “No More,” the Baker’s melancholy discussion of loss, despair and perseverance with his now dead father:
Can't we just pursue our lives
With out children and our wives?
'Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses …..
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?
God knows how many critics have heralded this number’s startling immediacy and powerful resonance over the years, drawing parallels with whatever moment of instability audiences happened to be living through. But that is testament to Sondheim’s brilliance. With the man now gone, the number’s sad reckoning with a cruel and exhaustingly messy world hits all the harder.
A hush fell over the theater as the invaluable Brian D’Arcy James, this production’s beating heart, filled the words with mournful exhaustion, creating a shared moment of grief: whether for a beloved icon lost, a world rapidly collapsing beneath us, all the horrors we feel powerless to prevent–or perhaps, all of the above. If theater is about collective release, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Into The Woods is now in performance at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street in New York City through August 21, 2022. For tickets and more information, visit here.