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‘Into The Woods’ Broadway review: High-octane, unfiltered Sondheim


The sublime recent revival of the musical “Into The Woods” that opened Sunday night on Broadway is radical. 

Because there is completely nothing radical about it.

Recent York audiences lately have turn out to be accustomed — too accustomed, I say! — to the works of the late composer Stephen Sondheim getting used as weighty canvases for the machinations of auteur directors. 

Theater review

2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission. On the St. James Theater, 246 W forty fourth St.

Whether it’s John Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd” performed by actor-musicians on a bare stage in 2005 or last season’s excellent gender-swapped “Company” helmed by Marianne Elliott, Sondheim shows have gotta get a gimmick. Probably the most recent Central Park revival of “Into The Woods” 10 years ago modified the old man narrator character to a bit of boy lost on a camping trip. Sure!

Not this latest “Into The Woods,” though. What we experience is the 1986 musical, plain and easy. (Granted, nothing Sondheim ever wrote was plain or easy.)

The brand new revival began as a preferred, streamlined concert at City Center this spring and has been schlepped over the river and thru the woods and across seventh Ave. to the St. James Theatre just about as is, save for some recent forged members.

“Into The Woods” has an easy set, and is filled with Broadway talent. Evan Zimmerman

The costumes by Andrea Hood are basic storybook clothes; there’s an actual orchestra onstage; David Rockwell’s set is a number of birch tree trunks and a few black steps. You don’t leave pondering, “What was the director doing with all those lasers?” 

God, that’s good.

The razor sharp focus here, as a substitute, is on a divinely forged, crystal clear staging of the fairytale musical that intertwines the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel right into a lesson about how maturity has no joyful ending. 

You won’t soon forget Sara Bareilles’ perfect rendition of “Moments within the Woods,” a notoriously tricky song by which the Baker’s Wife tries to rationalize some taboo forest frolicking. The actress is so warm and thoughtful through the number, but additionally flies by the seat of her pants. I’ve never seen such a relatable interpretation — she’s the Baker’s Wife of Park Slope.

Sara Bareilles plays the Baker's Wife in Sara Bareilles plays the Baker’s Wife in “Into The Woods.” Evan Zimmerman

As her husband, a deep-feeling Brian D’Arcy James movingly wails “No More,” confronting the memory of his lost father. And Phillipa Soo, as a conflicted Cinderella, melts the audience with the ever-so-sad “No One Is Alone.”

There are two terrific Broadway debuts here – Cole Thompson as Jack and Julia Lester playing that peppy spitfire Little Red. Thompson is good and innocent because the beanstalk climber, and lifts our spirits with that goosebumps solo “Giants In The Sky.” And in Lester, we witness a significant recent comedic talent emerge. All her well-known jokes feel fresh, and she or he is unbelievably funny. My face was loads red from laughing so hard.

Gavin Creel gets giggles, too, because the Big Bad Wolf and alongside Josh Henry because the dummy princes.

Julia Lester makes a hilarious Broadway debut as Little Red. Julia Lester makes a hilarious Broadway debut as Little Red. Evan Zimmerman

So, of all things, does Milky White the cow. The production uses a particularly expressive puppet that turns our bovine buddy into an cute Golden Retriever. The night I attended, the role was played by understudy Cameron Johnson, who got as much applause as any singing part did.

Patina Miller’s Witch works best when the character is a chilly realist — not unlike her “Cabaret” Emcee-like tackle the Leading Player in “Pippin.” She’s less affecting when she painfully sings to her adopted daughter, Rapunzel, or croons that famous lesson-song “Children Will Listen.” Nevertheless, the actress is a vocal powerhouse.

“Into The Woods,” surprisingly, is popping into Sondheim’s best-remembered show over higher ones like “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music” and “Company.” Act 2 has at all times been a heavy-handed thicket of rapid tragedies that doesn’t quite land, but no one cares anymore. Because of the taped 1987 production and frequent highschool stagings (there’s even a “junior” version for youths), the show has jammed itself into the minds and hearts of a generation of theatergoers. 

Some Australian friends who didn’t know the fabric remarked that they felt like they were at a panto, a boisterous call-and-response type holiday show in Britain and Australia. 

How wonderful it’s to see a Sondheim musical encourage that kind of energy from a crowd a long time later. Here’s hoping that trend sticks — ever after.

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