It's been a Sondheim-palooza in the past year since the legendary Broadway composer passed at the age of 91. In addition to his musicals that were already slated to hit The Great White Way prior to his death, productions of Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods were quickly put into high gear.
I don't think it's incorrect to say that, of all of Sondheim's musicals, Into the Woods is probably the best known, and most-beloved by audiences of pretty much any age. While his other works are special in their own ways, no other work in his canon is as frequently produced around the world. That's for a very good reason: more than Company or A Little Night Music or Sunday in the Park with George, the linear plot of Woods, the repeating musical motifs, and the timeless messages speak to the theatre-lovers, storytellers, and children in all of us.
The latest revival is a City Center Encores! production, which was only slated to play for 8 weeks on Broadway (yeah, sure it was), and features an all-star cast including Brian D'arcy James as The Baker, Stephanie J. Block as his Wife, Gavin Creel as Cinderella's Prince, Joshua Henry as Rapunzel's Prince, and several others.
The stand-out performance, though, was by Joaquina Kalukango as The Witch, a role that has been previously held by masters like Bernadette Peters, Meryl Streep, and Vanessa Williams. The show ultimately hinges on filling those extremely pointy shoes, and the producers must have felt like Cinderella's Prince trying to fit it to the right star. After Kalukango's star turn in Paradise Square, however, there was no question she would be the right choice.
Her Witch is among the meanest in any production I've seen, one who really believes that "children won't listen" (or really anyone else for that matter). Her Act II transformation from spell-casting hag to powerless hottie only intensifies her contempt of the other characters in the woods with her, who have forced her into putting them in the position she's in. After all, if The Baker, Jack, and Cinderella didn't wish for more, none of these (mis)adventures would happen. It's their own greed that forces the Witch's hand, and she must fulfill the expectations made of her, outcome be damned. She has no qualms with the sacrifices she must make as though she knew it as a foregone conclusion even before the rest of her comrades.
It often strikes me as strange that Woods is considered a comedy; Indeed, even a theatre critic's blurb is plastered across the front of the St. James Theatre saying they have never laughed so hard at a musical. I found the majority of the show lacking much humor, especially as Gavin Creel's over-the-top, hammy performance often upstaged his counterpart prince, Joshua Henry (recently seen in ABC's live broadcast of Beauty & the Beast as Gaston). When his character is blinded towards the end of the first act, his timing with the Narrator's description of his actions was off just a few seconds, as though he actually couldn't see or hear what was going on around him. It was as though there were a time delay between the audio and visual, but obviously, that couldn't be.
Much of the action is played far downstage, as 2/3 of the performing area is occupied by the orchestra. This design choice took me out of the show repeatedly; rather than backdrops or set pieces, or even just a blank stage, my eye was constantly caught by the conductor waving his arms, or my own interest in watching the musicians play. Had they been placed in the pit area, as traditionally is the case, not only could more be done on stage with depth and perhaps design, but I would not be drawn away from the action the actors are working so hard at. For most of the play, the only real set pieces are trees hanging down from the rafters. The only bright ray are the boots of the Giant's Wife, steered by two puppeteers, who also operate Milky White and Cinderella's Birds. Yet, with such limited space due to the size of the orchestra, even these inspired moments feel confined.
I had hoped for more from Brian D'Arcy James, an actor who I've followed and love onscreen and onstage for many years. As the Baker, he is, perhaps, the central male character, but like the man he's playing, James often seemed confused and at a loss for what to do. His Baker was a cartoon character -- perhaps he would've been a better fit for the film version than James Corden -- and as a result comes across as a bumbling, slightly curmudgeonly doofus. I genuinely worried about him raising his child at the end of the story.
But as a Dad, I get it. The "woods" (the Unknown World) is a frightening and sometimes magical place. Over the past few years as our world has faced the COVID pandemic, we have all wished and yearned for that enchanted place to be away from the troubles of our daily lives. Into the Woods, therefore, may be seen in today's viewing as a cautionary tale; It reminds us that what we need most is often found right at home with us, and based on the performance I saw, sometimes it's best to not wish for more.
Into the Woods plays on Broadway through January 8, 2023 and then begins a national tour in Boston.