Sometimes less is more.
That adage applies perfectly to this simplistic, beautifully sung and deeply felt production of “Into the Woods,” which began last May as a semi-staged concert with an all-star cast, part of a tidal wave of affection for Stephen Sondheim’s work since his death in late 2021
It was so well received that it transferred intact to Broadway, where it became a hit for its limited engagement, which ended in January.
Now on a limited tour with several Broadway cast members and a few legitimate stage stars like Tony winners Stephanie J. Block (currently out requiring vocal rest, likely to return for the second week of Chicago performances) and Gavin Creel, the production quite literally puts Sondheim’s music center stage. The orchestra appears just behind the performers, and the forest setting is depicted with partial, spare tree trunks above them suspended by the flies. The presence of the orchestra reduces the playing space, putting even more emphasis on the performers, the music, the lyrics, as opposed to the production values.
“Into the Woods” is one of the most versatile of all major musicals. It’s so well-structured, lyrically clever and thematically rich that it really works just as well executed grandly or plainly, or in between.
A combination of fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella, the show exists in an imaginary story anyway. Such yarns have simply been read aloud as bedtime stories exponentially more times than they have been produced as big-budget spectacles.
Simplicity has great advantages here. The differences between Act I — where the characters desire, seek, and achieve — and Act II — where the characters, after getting what they wished for, aren’t sure it’s what they wanted after all — don’t feel so jarring. , as they can with images of destruction that overwhelm the show. The disappointments, the compromises, the recognition of mortality – all this seems a natural extension of the stories, not a diversion. Everything feels extraordinary… on a human scale.
In fact, Sebastian Arcelus’ Baker (a fictional protagonist in James Lapine’s book) is by far the most compelling, compelling portrayal I’ve ever seen. A central but difficult character, the Baker has always been a strange combination of passivity and sexist bossiness, needing to be prodded by his practical, baby-craving wife (a strong Ximon Rose, standing in for Block). According to Arcelus, the Baker is a real everyman, quite confused, weak, and operating under cultural expectations he never thought about. When his wife has a “moment” with the flamboyant prince (Creel), we certainly can’t blame her. Too many actors before him have begged the audience to like this guy, but not here, and maybe for the first time I fully understand him.
There are other outstanding performances. Creel, who in addition to the prince plays the wolf eating grandma, is one of those performers whose purposeful gestures and comic timing make you want to follow him wherever he goes. And while he’s properly over-the-top, he also brings his prince down to Earth size at the precise moment when he admits, “I was brought up to be charming, not sincere.”
The wonderful twist is that he says it with the utmost sincerity.
As Beanstalk Jack, Cole Thompson beautifully captures the purity of emotion, from the wonder of “Giants in the Sky” to the learning of the lessons of loss in Act II. And Katie Geraghty, as the not-so-innocent Little Red Riding Hood, delivers a level of sass that’s hard to imagine surpassing. Another understudy, Ellie Fishman, plays Cinderella with a genuinely genial sense of humility. And Montego Glover, a somewhat underrated witch for most of the show, certainly delivers a masterful crescendo with her version of “Last Midnight.”
When the show calls for special effects, James Ortiz’s minimalist puppetry fills in, providing big wiry shoes to portray the giant stomping around in the second act, as well as a great cow (served by Kennedy Kanagawa) and amusingly chattering birds, a bit of a mishmash in the Disney versions of these tales.
It’s shocking, if not surprising, how current Into the Woods, which was first produced in 1987, manages to feel in each new era. If anything, it makes more sense with time.
Understanding the idea of stories as fundamentally shared consciousness, this version adds to the very successful case for this show as among Sondheim’s finest masterpieces.