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INTO THE WOODS - St. James Theatre

Like many of us whose musical theater experience is informed by Stephen Sondheim more than any other composer/ lyricist (my first was the original Broadway production of “Company’ when I was a college Freshman), “Into The Woods” has always been one of my favorites. “Sweeney Todd” always my #1 but the older I get the more “Into The Woods” moves up my list. Now, with the semi-staged Encores! transfer to Broadway, “Into the Woods” comes at a time when it seems more meaningful than ever.

“Into The Woods'' was a somewhat curious program choice for Ecores!, which specializes in older, often esoteric, sometimes the almost-forgotten musical. But with Sondheim there’s never enough. In this new production, directed with appropriate economy by Encores! artistic director Lear de Bossent, the lyrical and musical enchantment is brighter (and sometimes darker as this musical goes) than the nearly dozens of other productions of it I’ve seen. .

The cast - largely made up of a “new”, younger generation of Broadway names (with all due respect to Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason and other members of the original company) - underscores the timeliness of the 1988 musical fable with a book by Sondhem collaborator James Lapine.

To Sondheim afficianadoes the complicated narrative - a kind of Freudian Fractured FairyTales is well known. In brief, Brothers Grimms characters - Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (as in the Beanstalk who slays the Giant), Cinderella and Rapunzel - have a wish. Their tales are intertwined by the childless Baker and his Wife who bargain with The Witch, Rapunzel’s mother. If they bring The Witch four items, they will bear a child. So begins the journeys into the woods, The finale fo Act 1, (Happy) ”Ever After”, celebrates everyone - ostensibly - getting what they want.

By the end of Act 1 without complete spectacle, I wondered if the narrative was comprehensible; the early twenty-something sitting next to me who’d never seen “Woods” (imagine!) said he got it. Andrea Hood’s richly textured costumes make the characters readily identifiable. David Rockwell’s set of abstract birch trees ominously lit by Tyler Micouleau set the mood, Rockwell also has constructed charming “doll-houses” suspended above the “family” groupings of characters to underscore place and relationship.

Even though everybody got their wish in Act 1, given human nature, they remain unsatisfied, and go back into the woods in Act 2, which is not happy-ever-after at all. To revenge Jack’s slaying of the Giant by Jack, the Giantess attacks (a pair of white wire-sculptured boots carried as stomping props). Many characters perish.. (No spoiler there.) The survivors acknowledge the wrongs, the mistakes, and the lessons (dare we say morals) learned. They acknowledge their fates are interconnected, elegiacally expressed in "No One is Alone."

Sondeim and Lapine’s layered themes endure in this Encore production, but its real power is its ravishing score and brilliant lyrics flawlessly performed by a stellar cast. Phillip Soo (Hamilton’s wife in the original cast of “Hamilton”) renders Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace” in sopranic perfection. Pop songwriter and actress Sara Barailles brings vocal hardiness to the Baker's wife. She’s paired fittingly with the reliable Brian D’Arcy James as the Baker, who brings gravitas to “No More”, underscoring the wisdom the Baker acquires through tragedy. Patin Miller, finally back on Broadway after her Tony winning role in the “Pippin'' revival in 2013, almost steals the show with the Witch’s “Last Midnight”. Gavin Creel (last seen in “Hello Dolly”) has the most fun in dual roles of the Wolf in “Hello, Little Girl” wherein he tries to seduce Little Red Riding Hood and as Cinderlla’s Princ, crooning with melodramatic camp “Agony”. Veteran Annie Golden couldn't be better for dual roles of Riding Hood’s Granny and Cinderella's mother. The show introduces two newcomers, boh in Broadway debuts. Julia Lester plays the most pluck and wise-ass Little Red Riding Hood I’ve seen, and Cole Thompson the naivest and wide-eyed Jack ever. Kudos to puppeteer James Ortiz for his charming Milky the Cow.

Ron Berman as musical director recreates Johnathan Tunick's luscious arrangements with the onstage Encores! Orchestra. The music moved me more than any other time of the many I’ve seen “Into the Woods”. But what “cut like a knife” was one of the final ensemble lyrics: “The light is getting dimmer, I think I see a glimmer… " With Sondheim’s perennial wryness and mirth, hope endures even in these troubled times.


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