Into The Woods at the St. James Theatre Review: Believe the hype

With a cast as glittering as Cinderella’s slippers, Encores! production of Into the Woods is phenomenal

Stories end happily. That’s what fairytales would have us believe. The girl gets her prince, the rags become riches, the pumpkins become a carriage. Everything works out neatly in the end, where goodness prevails, evil falters and, ultimately, everybody lives Happily Ever After.

If only life were so simple. In what is widely considered his most beloved work, Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine present a story that deals with consequence. Where no win comes without a loss. Where no wish is borne without sacrifice.

Into the Woods examines traditional fairytales by interpolating characters from several different stories into a fresh narrative, which sees a Baker and his wife attempt to lift a witch’s curse on their fertility by obtaining the cow as white as milk (leading them on a collision course with naïve Jack), the cape as red as blood (a particularly prickly and entitled Little Red Riding Hood), the hair as yellow as corn (a lamenting Rapunzel) and the slipper as pure as gold (an especially flighty Cinderella, who isn’t quite as eager for a life with her Prince as one might believe). While Act 1 tells a fairly traditional fairytale story, in which all of our characters reach their happy end, Act 2 unravels the result of their actions, leaving our characters in a thoroughly different place than before.

Originally opening on Broadway in 1987, winning it the Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book, Into the Woods has not enjoyed a stage production since its 2002 revival. Its staging as part of New York City Center’s Encores! series in May 2022 starring Heather Headley, Neil Patrick Harris, Sara Bareilles, Denée Benton, Gavin Greel, Jordan Donica, Julia Lester and Cole Thompson was a clear hit, leading to the announcement of a Broadway transfer with most of this cast, with Brian d’Arcy James replacing Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker, Patina Miller taking over the reins of the Witch from Heather Headley, Phillipa Soo donning the golden slippers in Denée Benton‘s stead and Joshua Henry relieving Jordan Donica of his crown as Rapunzel’s Prince.

The Broadway run has proved equally as successful, with a cast album of this production scheduled for a September release and an extension until October 16th with a fresh star-studded cast taking the stage.

As a complete production, it is evident how deeply loved and respected Sondheim’s work is. Existing somewhere between a fully-staged show and a concert version, director Lear deBessonet challenges the audience to focus purely upon the majesty and beauty of the music and the soaring orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick) as well as the tremendous work of music director Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra.

The scenic design by David Rockwell, coupled with Tyler Micoleau‘s lighting design are wonderfully effective, with suspended silver birch trunks occupying the stage and a simple, moving circular light that demonstrates the passing of time (and the multiple midnights). It is beautiful in its minimalism, and this sense of pared back once again directs the audience’s focus towards the strength of the material and the incredible, talented performances of the cast.

Not all musicals stand up well without the frills and fuss of a full production, and presented here in essence as a concert version (though actors fortunately do not find themselves marooned downstage barking into a microphone resolutely not looking at each other à la Les Miserables) truly demonstrates the strength of Sondheim and Lapine‘s creation. The audience clearly feel the same way, with rapturous applause meeting the opening curtain.

Into the Woods is arguably one of Sondheim‘s funniest shows and much work is done to create levity within the script, but not in a way that undermines or goes against the messaging, merely capitalising on what is already there. Julia Lester‘s bold portrayal of Little Red, for example, is the source of much amusement, as is the dynamic between Sara Bareilles and Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker and her husband and a sillily amusing dance that the Witch (Patina Miller) does upon hearing Rapunzel’s lilting melody. Fun is poked as well at Cinderella (Phillipa Soo) and her incredibly convenient ability to talk to birds. This levity allows the heavier moments of the show to not dominate the narrative, whilst also not doing a disservice to this intense emotion.

Adding to this zany, humorous atmosphere is the accomplished puppetry, with puppets designed by James Ortiz. Milky White is conveyed so convincingly and adorably by Kennedy Kanagawa (in his Broadway debut, to boot) that it is genuinely quite heartbreaking to come to terms with the realisation that she is not real. Every movement is intentional and truly fleshes this character out and it really enhances the relationship between Jack (Cole Thompson) and Milky White. A true scene-stealer, Into the Woods should really capitalise on Milky White’s appeal and start selling miniature marionettes or stuffed toys, because they would certainly fly off the shelves1. This puppetry is also used effectively within Act 2 to represent the Giant’s Wife (there are lots of people without names in this show) through her two heeled shoes. It is stunning in its simplicity and yet really works.

The strength of this production, however, would be nothing with a weak cast. There could be as many musicians in the world and as stunning orchestrations as one could wish for, but without a cast talented enough to perform the songs, this production would be dead in the water (though I am not for a minute reducing the vital importance of the music and orchestrations). It is also a clear part of the appeal of the show, with Into the Woods‘ posters listing the high-profile names above the title.

All of the cast are truly remarkable. Sara Bareilles presents an impulsive, headstrong Baker’s Wife (in her interviews, she has named her Rebecca, FYI) and her “Moments in the Woods” is perfectly acted. The journey that she manages to take the audience through is a testament to the strength of Sondheim’s command of song structure, but also her abilities as an actress. Her command over her voice is also impressive, able to transfix the audience with her breathy head voice before stealing breath with her impressive belt. The only downside to her winning performance is that her presence in Act 2 is somewhat devastating once it ends.

Julia Lester is also a standout. Her Broadway debut and she very much makes the most of every moment. Her Little Red is sly, devious, playful, unexpectedly sensual and at times disarmingly vulnerable. A truly chaotic presence on stage and infinitely watchable. She was born to be gracing the stage. Cole Thompson also makes his Broadway debut here in a stunningly endearing performance with an absolutely gorgeous voice.

Then there’s Patina Miller, who has a tremendous command over the stage and audience as she belts out “Stay With Me”, not to mention Act 2’s “Last Midnight”. Additionally, her understudy Felicia Curry, for whom I was able to see the Broadway debut of, was equally as enchanting with a visceral passion.

Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry do commendable work as the self-obsessed and immoral Princes to Cinderella and Rapunzel respectively, Phillipa Soo‘s vocals are serene and her acting performance is very humorous. Brian d’Arcy James is a reliably steadfast presence and David Patrick Kelly is deliciously barmy as The Mysterious Man, whose chief tactic of magical movement is a Jaida Essence Hall-style “Look Over There!” moment.

Into the Woods is, put simply, a triumph. Do not be misled, by that. Head Into the Woods, with no delay. (Well, unless of course you are prohibited by geographical or fiscal limitations)


Into the Woods is playing at the St. James Theatre and currently booking until October 16th. Tickets can be found here.

1Loosely translates as “Please, dear God, I want one”.

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