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You’ll Want to Lose Yourself in this Magical ‘Into the Woods’

A review of Into the Woods by Ran Xia | July 10, 2022

It’s almost impossible to offer a summary of Into the Woods that makes justice to the story, or rather, the nebula of stories that comprise it. “Anything can happen in the woods,” says Cinderella’s Prince to the Baker’s Wife. Indeed, the woods are where worlds collide, an in-between place where nothing is what it seems.

The musical masterpiece, with lyrics and music by the late Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, is an adaptation, sequel remix of classical fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, specifically “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Rapunzel.” 

However, at the center of everything are the Baker (a perfect everyman as played by Brian D’arcy James) and his Wife (Sara Bareilles displaying perfect comedic timing), a pair of traditionally nameless background characters in tales of grand adventure and mystifying enchantment, who here get to be in the spotlight as they try to break the curse that has rendered them childless.

The Baker learns his parents stole greens from their neighbor, the Witch (Patina Miller, who doesn’t merely fill but claims those pointy shoes as her own), who flounces over to the couple to demand that they seek out four items (“a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold”) in order to break the curse.

Meanwhile, Cinderella (an angelic Phillipa Soo) dreams of going to the royal festival, Jack (the wide-eyed powerhouse Cole Thompson) begrudgingly sets off to sell his cow/best friend Milky White, and Little Red (a fierce Julia Lester) makes, or at least attempts to, make her way through the woods to her grandmother’s house with a basketful of sweets that she will end up polishing off herself.

All of them encounter obstacles: Little Red gets eaten by the Wolf (a delightfully deranged Gavin Creel); Cinderella recurs to the magic of the tree on her mother’s grave (Annie Golden wearing a branch) in order to attend the ball, Jack trades Milky White for beans…but by the end of Act I, it seems like everyone will have their wishes fulfilled, the Baker and his Wife get their child, Cinderella and Rapunzel (Alysia Velez) marry princes, and Jack has become rich after climbing a certain magical beanstalk. 

“Seems” is the key word here.

This is how Into the Woods ended for me when I first encountered it in the sixth grade and our teacher decided to shield us from those dark twists by withholding everything that occurs in Act II, where Sondheim and Lapine turn it all on its head and the happy endings start to atrophy. Because humans wish, and humans want, except most of the time, what they wish (though granted) is not the same as what they want.

I can rap poetry for days about the significance of what, for me, is the crown jewel of American musicals. At its most surface level, you can’t miss the commentary on parenting; there are helicopter, absent, and single parents, who pass their curses on to their children like a vicious cycle. There are also stories of unlikely parental figures and families formed out of shared tragedy.

Transferred straight from City Center’s Encore series, director Lear deBessonet takes a refreshingly simple approach to this complex piece. With an exposed orchestra behind the performers, concert-style (as is the norm in Encore productions) the production doesn’t shy away from the fourth-wall breaking, presentational style of the piece – especially with a narrator (David Patrick Kelly who is also a whimsical presence as the Mysterious Man) communicating directly with the audience to usher the stories forward.

The design elements never overwhelm nor distract from the performance; David Rockwell’s scenic design works seamlessly with Tyler Micoleau’s ambient lighting. Amongst the expertly assembled design team, however, James Ortiz’s puppets stand out. Aside from Milky White who deserves her own solo show, the Giant who appears in Act II is represented by a pair of wired puppet high heels, each operated by a separate puppeteer. This principle of “less is more”, allowed me to take in the meat of Into the Woods like never before.

Whether you’re a die-hard Sondheim stan or a first-time visitor of the woods, you’ll get reeled in by its initial apparent whimsy, its deceptive simplicity, only for it to tap into the hinterlands of your own pathos, and so through the woods of constant self-examination, you’d come out the other side a little changed, and a little less alone.

And that, I’ve often thought, was the point of it all. 

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