Broadway’s ‘Into the Woods,’ now at the Kennedy Center, still enchants


With a bewitching lack of frills, and all of its melodic thrills, the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods” has arrived at the Kennedy Center, for a splendid encounter with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s witty rendering of a fairy-tale world upended by answered prayers.

The journey of this production, directed with close attention to joy by Lear deBessonet, has itself been something out of a storybook. Developed as a short-lived concert version last year for City Center’s Encores! series off-Broadway, it proved such a success that it moved to Broadway’s St. James Theatre for a limited run that extended its scheduled limits all the way to January. That engagement led to the national tour that officially launches with its debut in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Several of the original Broadway cast members signed onto the tour, including Gavin Creel, whose double duty as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince — a traditional “Into the Woods” pairing — remains an act of comic pricelessness. Montego Glover as the Witch and Stephanie J. Block as the Baker’s Wife, both of whom came later into the Broadway production, offer vital sparks of dazzle and warmth. The performance that’s sure to have legs (two human, four fiberglass) continues to belong to Kennedy Kanagawa, who infuses the mournful puppet-cow Milky White with so much feeling you might more aptly categorize this musical as a dairy tale.

“Into the Woods” has a magical cow. Meet the man who mooves her.

The delicious conceit of “Into the Woods” is that well-known characters from folklore, such as Cinderella (Diane Phelan), Little Red Ridinghood (Kate Geraghty) and Jack of Beanstalk fame (Cole Thompson), live in the same enchanted kingdom as others drawn from Sondheim and Lapine’s own imaginations. The stock magic device — the granting of extravagant wishes — is portrayed here with modernist irony, for as the characters sing: “Wishes may bring problems, such that you regret them.”

Sondheim and Lapine concocted a tangled plot for the 1987 show, framed by the idea of a passel of fantasy characters forced to face the dire consequences of their actions. It’s both the pleasure and the challenge of mounting the musical, because as people die off in Act 2, the need for tying things up in digestible morals — the way fairy tales tend to — proves tricky. Life doesn’t work out the way one wishes, even for make-believe characters. The show ends with several beautiful ballads: “No More,” “No One is Alone,” “Children Will Listen,” that offer words to the wise and some other words with more ambiguous meaning. Who lives, who dies; who suffers, who prospers: The world is a riddle.

DeBessonet’s approach suits the musical’s prescriptions so well because the concert format strips away many of the usual embellishments. The story is all. David Rockwell’s ingenious set plants the 11-member orchestra, conducted by John Bell, in the middle of the woods, with birch trees descending from the heavens as the characters embark on their forest quests. Tyler Micoleau illuminates the backstage wall in ethereal ombré hues of pinks and greens and Andrea Hood’s amusing costumes walk a runway existing somewhere between chic and Grimm.

Now hear this: How “Into the Woods” makes the noise so joyful

Thankfully, too, sound designers Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann replicate the expertise they demonstrated in the St. James; the lyrics and melodies resound crisply in the Opera House — maybe they should be asked back!

Choreographer Lorin Lotarro employs simple, gliding steps to guide the cast agilely through the production numbers, and there is a pleasing fluidity to the movement throughout the show: Witness the way David Patrick Kelly, as the Mysterious Man, gestures as he confounds the Baker with enigmatic rhymes, or how Nancy Opel, Brooke Ishibashi and Ta’Nika Gibson diaphanously float in as Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsisters. (Jason Forbach, who normally plays Rapunzel’s Prince, substituted as the Baker at my performance for the injured Sebastian Arcelus. Sam Simahk played the prince, and Andy Karl was brought in for the role at several subsequent performances.)

Among other bright comic turns, Geraghty brings both expert timing and gleeful bloodthirstiness to Little Red Ridinghood, and Phelan evinces charm to spare in her rendition of that anthem to second-guessing, “On the Steps of the Palace.” Thompson’s dizzy Jack is an excellent foil for Rayanne Gonzales, playing his amusingly exasperated mother. And Felicia Curry navigates smartly the character leaps from Cinderella’s mother to Red Ridinghood’s grandmother to the vengeance-seeking Giant.

The Kennedy Center’s presentation is the second “Into the Woods” to materialize in these parts in recent months: Signature Theatre found a winning formula in a production that placed the musical in the ruins of an enchanted cottage. I don’t mean to play favorites, but the Milky White who jauntily dances in the Opera House is one I’m especially happy to steer you to.

Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Lear deBessonet. Choreography Lorin Lotarro; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Andrea Hood; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann; puppet design, James Ortiz; music supervision, Rob Berman; music direction, John Bell; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through March 19 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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