Find someone who looks at you the way the carb-loving Little Red Ridinghood locks eyes on a loaf of bread in the opening moments of the bewitchingly beautiful and impeccably performed Into the Woods at the St. James Theatre.
Her besotted eyeballs all but scream, “More, please!” Turns out, the same expression was plastered on my face for almost three hours during this take on the late-1980s fairytale musical by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine.
Direct from a deservedly much-ballyhooed run in May at New York City Center Encores!, this star-packed and polished Into the Woods is currently slated to run for eight weeks. It’s Broadway’s giant summer blockbuster. What a stellar way to launch the 2022-23 Broadway season.
Credit director Lear deBessonet for assembling a Broadway dream team (there have been changes since City Center) as well as her clear-eyed and uncluttered staging. The emphasis is squarely on the wall-to-wall wonders and wit of the script and score. Its familiar songs include “Children Will Listen,” “No More,” and “No One Is Alone.”
A half dozen above-the-title stars help make it feel like you’re seeing and hearing the show for the first time. Sara Bareilles and Brian d’Arcy James are a childless baker and his wife on a hunt to lift a hex, Patina Miller is the witch who cast a spell on them, Phillipa Soo is long-suffering Cinderella, Gavin Creel is a prince and a wolf, and Joshua Henry is another royal.
They collide with each other as well as Little Red (an invaluable Julia Lester), the lonely and long-tressed Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), the beanstalk-climbing Jack (a touching and amusing Cole Thompson) and his mom (Aymee Garcia), and others.
The whole cast shines, including Jack’s scene-stealing bovine bestie, a cow puppet designed by James Ortiz and brought adorably to life at my performance by Cameron Johnson, who stepped in for Kennedy Kanagawa.
Sondheim (who died in November 2021) and Lapine, collaborators on Sunday in the Park with George and Passion, knew their way around stories streaked with darkness. Classic fairytales, typically stuffed with plenty of pain and suffering, make ideal raw material.
As characters get mashed together and “happily ever afters” are replaced by reality checks, the scope of the show expands. What emerges is a funny, insightful, and thrilling story about life and death and all that’s waiting along the way.
The show’s spare set reserves space for the onstage orchestra and conductor Rob Berman. Scenic designer David Rockwell always has magic and poetry up his sleeve. He reveals it here with a forest of descending trees.
Andrea Hood’s costumes could have leapt from a pop-up book. Tyler Micoleau bathes the stage in moody lighting. Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann’s sound is clear as glass so that every clever quip (“You can talk to birds”) and tongue- and brain-flexing lyric (“We’ve not time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her” — say that five times fast) tolls with clarity.
The first act flows along smoothly as silk, while the second act is choppier but deeper. This show is filled with musical highlights. A few favorites include Miller’s soul-shaking “Stay With Me”; Creel’s cheeky “Hello, Little Girl” and “Agony,” which cement his status as an ace stage comedian; and Soo’s soaring “On the Steps of the Palace.”
Between her all-heart acting and subtly pop-infused singing, Bareilles makes everything gleam. That goes double on “It Takes Two,” a duet with the reliably appealing James.
Into the Woods, which became a Meryl Streep movie in 2014, is one of Sondheim’s most popular shows. This new production follows previous Broadway runs in 1987 and 2002. They say three’s a charm — and this revival has it to spare.
Photo credit: Sara Bareilles and Brian d'Arcy James in Into the Woods. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)