‘Into the Woods’ Review: Glorious Revival Highlights Sondheim’s Masterwork as Uproariously Funny, Sonorously Poignant
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Into the Woods is in its brilliant fourth revival on Broadway at the St. James Theatre. This iteration magnifies the greatness of Sondheim’s iconic work with affecting power. Thanks to the cast and creative team, the production is a towering achievement.
Intricately making the complex crystal clear, the creatives have woven fantasy and magic into stylized perfection. The company conveys Sondheim’s sharply, ironic lyrics and Lapine’s clever, comedic book with campy authenticity that befits the tone of the production. All the while the cast twits their characters and performances with sheer abandon and fun.
If fairy tales embody archetypes that float in and out of our unconscious, this Into the Woods reveals how and why. Ancient folklore transfixes us because ultimately, it is immutable and intensely personal. Lapine and Sondheim have given us Into the Woods as a gift of wonder and wisdom and the amazing director (Lear deBessonet), has channeled their vision with grace and beauty that touches our souls.
Transferring from New York City Center Encores!, deBessonet’s metaphoric, symbolic, slimmed down production continues to thrill enthusiastic audiences as it takes them on the familiar roller coaster ride of highs and lows with humor, pathos, and sterling performances by an exquisite cast. The multitalented actors with comic flair portray the indelible Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Witch, two Prince Charmings and more. They romp with delight in Act I and with the searing edginess of moment and bitterness, they shed their “happy” in Act II. The two acts encompass the whole of our life’s experience; it is satisfying yet bittersweet as illumination becomes the true prize of living.
This production is bar none fabulous and appropriate thematic fare for young and old who have encountered their share of giants, witches and adventures into dark, foreboding places. The characters’ journey quest is the linchpin to the fulfillment of their dreams, not only returning wisdom and enlightenment, but moving them from innocence to experience. And the music, Sondheim’s soaring melodies are sensational. Presented by the golden-voiced cast and accompanied by The Encores! Orchestra under Rob Berman’s fine direction, the score has staying power that remains with one long after the audience’s raucous standing ovations end at the last curtain call.
Indeed, de Bessonet’s vision of minimalist staging, pared-down scenic design (David Rockwell), spare lighting design (Tyler Micoleau), and Andrea Hood’s unpretentious costume design work beautifully. Without costly extravagances and unencumbered by visual distractions, we are totally focused on the music, lyrics, and acutely spun characterizations portrayed by the actors’ dynamic performances.
For example the settings of the three families (Cinderella’s, the Baker and his wife, Jack and his mother), are suggested with old-fashioned cut-outs of their homes, suspended above their playing area as their family interactions and conflicts unravel. Rockwell’s suspended birch tree trunks suggest the sinister forest of shadowy fears all must confront. Combined with Micoleau’s atmospheric lighting and large evocative moon that rises and falls to “light the way,” the elements summon the surreal and illusive.
Additionally, Andrea Hood’s apt color-coded costumes define each character with particularity and interest. For example she employs primary hues (bright yellow and red jackets), for the comedic, over-the-top Prince Charmings. For the earthy folk heroes with whom we identify, she fashions rosey browns for the Baker and his wife. Their grounded dream to have a baby is one couples might most identify with.
Splendid, spot-on performances by Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife and Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker showcase the common folk and the experiences of marriage. As a beautifully blended husband and wife team who must confront and satisfy Patina Miller’s scary-funny witch to fulfill their baby dream, the actors are in lockstep. Their duet “It Takes Two,” knocks it out of the park. Bareilles’ interpretation of a wife who controls her husband by surreptitiously winding her way around his machismo is brilliant. The audience catches her every nuance, every shrug of the shoulders. For his part D’arcy James’ pretend bravery masking fear is so aptly humorous. And in Act II d’Arcy James “No More,” sung with David Patrick Kelly’s Mysterious Man is heartrending. Our emotions are swept up as we agree there must be an end to the seasons of pain between fathers and sons, parents and children.
The two Prince Charmings, Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, have choreographed their movements to represent the ineluctable adornments of seduction with verve and just enough hyperbole to make them deliciously palatable and hysterical (“Agony”). The wonderful Phillipa Soo’s dreaming Cinderella who sings her feelings with Bareilles’ Baker’s Wife resonates with beauty and humor (“A Very Nice Prince”). Soo’s awkward, klutzy Cinderella who falls every time she joins the Baker’s wife “lands.” Soo always gets a laugh as the audience appreciates the dreamy, ditzy humanity of this princess-to-be who humiliates herself. Indeed, we also appreciate that Cinderella is much more astute in Act II when the realities of her marriage to the Prince confront her full force.
Julia Lester’s Little Red Riding Hood plays to the audience, breaking the fourth wall with success as one of the most beloved of fairy-tale characters. As Little Red, Lester scarfs down all the treats before she makes it to grandma’s house. Thus, Gavin Creel’s Wolf is all the more satisfied after he scarfs her down. Their scene together is uproarious (“Hello, Little Girl”). Creel’s seducer Wolf is appropriately smarmy which Lester tweaks as the less-than-innocent Little Red, who enjoys tempting him.
Creel does double duty as seducer of the Baker’s Wife. Bareilles’ formerly faithful wife in Act I submits to the wolf Prince Charming in Act II (“Any Moment”), seeking something more. Creel pulls out all stops recalling to our remembrance the wolf metaphor in Act I. Princes and wolves are two sides of the same coin, Sondheim and Lapine intelligently note. And Bareilles’ “Moments in the Woods” is poignant and foreboding. Do Lapine and Sondheim punish the Baker’s wife’s behavior as an adulteress? Interestingly, the Prince’s wanderings receive no such comeuppance. Double standards are ever-present and especially when unlike fairy tales, Act II extends into the consequences beyond the artificial, “happily ever after.”
Jack (the superb Cole Thompson), his mother (Aymee Garcia), and the cow Milky White (the sensational puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa), form the third household. Thompson’s heartfelt “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” and rousing “Giants in the Sky,” are beautifully rendered. The vibrant “Giants in the Sky” Jack sings to inspire himself with courage to save his family, kill the giant and attain the wealth his mother needs. As Jack, Thompson’s stirring faith and hope resound with triumph.
The Witch is the central figure that eventually brings the company together. Patina Miller lives up to the task with her extraordinary performance before and after her transformation when the curse that holds her from her true nature is broken. We understand her love for Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), in the soulful “Stay With Me,” and the tragedy of her daughter’s loss in Act II in “Witch’s Lament.” Perhaps my favorite is Sondheim’s incredible “Last Midnight,” that she sings with power and all the dynamism she can muster. Miller’s performance of the song is memorable as the claws of the giant’s wife (voiced by Annie Golden), enfold her in destruction. Indeed, also with the last song “Children Will Listen” that Miller sings with the Company, she is just stunning.
In Act II the consequences of apparently naive actions performed without thought converge on the main characters who seek to avoid blame in the wonderful “Your Fault.” However, after the death of the Witch and the Baker decrying “No More,” a bittersweet hope returns in the remaining song, “No One Is Alone,” sung by Cinderella, Little Red, the Baker and Jack, who struggle to encourage each other after their losses. Was the journey worth what it taught the seekers? “Children Will Listen,” sung by the Witch and the entire company brings back to life the spirit of those taken by the Giant’s Wife as they relate the lessons learned. We are uplifted and restored by the illumination.
Kudos and praise go to additional creatives not mentioned before. These include Lorin Latarro (choreography), Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann (sound designers), James Ortiz (puppet designer), Cookie Jordan (hair, wigs & makeup designer), Seymour Redd Press/Kimberlee Wertz (music coordinators).
I have said enough. Go see this marvelous theatrical event which you will not be able to see again with this cast after September 4th. For tickets and times go to their website: https://intothewoodsbway.com/
The Visitor, is a haunting musical based on Thomas McCarthy’s resonant, titular, award-winning film (2007). In its World Premiere, The Visitor has been extended at The Public Theater, and is ending December 5th, 2021. That we are able to see it at all, given the pandemic which made New York City the global epicenter of death, shuttering theater for months, is nothing short of miraculous.
The egregious hell of the previous administration, including its threatened overthrow of the nation led by the former president and white supremacists who oppose immigration and the constitutional rule of law, may influence one toward a jaded view of The Visitor as woefully “uncurrent.” Some critics suggested this. Indeed, that is dismissive of the musical’s inherent hope, goodness and prescience. Not to view it through the proper lens of historical time would be as limiting as the unjust institutions and failed immigration policies that the production thematically indicts.
The Visitor, acutely directed by Daniel Sullivan, takes place after 2001 during the administration of President George W. Bush Jr., when certain groups viewed Muslim immigrants as possible terrorists. The period 2001-2007 was a less divisive time in the nation, but our failed immigration policies did stagnate and worsen, setting us up for future debacles and the growth of white domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, if one’s sensibilities are too upended by the traumas of the Trump administration to enjoy the musical without keeping the 2001-2007 time period in mind, the themes and the human core of this work by Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (lyrics), Kwame Kwei-Armah & Brian Yorkey (book), will be overlooked and given short shrift.
The themes are relayed principally through the relationships established between white college professor Walter (David Hyde Pierce in an emotional and effecting portrayal), Syrian Tarek (the likeable Ahmad Maksoud), and his girlfriend from Senegal, Zainab (the golden voiced Alysha Deslorieux). Believing Walter’s Manhattan apartment has been vacated, Tarek and Zainab, tricked by an “Ivan,” have been staying there without Walter’s knowledge. What occurs after Walter discovers their presence, takes us back to a time before Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, Republican party nihilism and Democratic governors’ establishment of sanctuary cities to protect the undocumented and waiting asylum seekers.
The opening numbers (“Prologue,” “Wake Up,” “Voices Through a Window”), establish why Walter is amenable to not behaving like a guard dog (who would note Zainab’s accent and Tarek’s swarthy looks), and immediately call the police to arrest the couple. Walter is a professor, not law enforcement. However, Zainab sees the precariousness of their situation and with passion mitigates their mistake (Zainab’s Apology”). After they leave, Walter finds Zainab’s sketch pad and runs after them. What results is an act of hospitality and generosity, as he allows the couple to stay until they find somewhere else to go.
Walter’s state of mind, character, background and the loss of his wife and emotional destitution prompt this irregular action. On the couple’s part, Zainab, who has been through an undocumented female’s hell which we later discover (“Bound for America”), doesn’t trust Walter and presses Tarek to leave, despite their desperate circumstances. David Hyde Pierce, a consummate actor whose Walter floats like a ghost without any sense of purpose, mission or happiness, sparks to interest identifying with the couple’s romantic love (“Tarek and Zainab,”). He wants to trust in their goodness and decency because he has already lost everything worth anything to him and he has nothing left to lose.
Walter, Tarek and Zainab take this incredible risk because of their overwhelming needs. All are visitors to this land of human decency which they extend to each other with hope and a faith that grows and changes their lives. When Tarek teaches Walter how to play one of his djembes (a goblet drum played with bare hands that originated in West Africa), and takes him to the park to play with others (the incredible “Drum Circle”), a bond is formed that will never be broken.
The production’s music (thanks to Rick Edinger, Emily Whitaker, musicians and the entire music team), solidifies the themes of friendship, unity, empathy, humanity. Significantly, the music suggests another vital theme. It is through our cultural differences via artistic soul expression, that the commonality among all of us may best be found. These themes, during what appears to be the height of racism and white supremacy in our nation today must be affirmed more than ever. The Visitor does this with subtlety like a grand slam in bridge played with three cool finesses.
At the first turning point in the production, the center starts to give way. Though Walter tries to advocate for the inaccuracy of the transit cops’ charges, Tarek is arrested for “jumping” a subway turn style after he pays but can’t fit himself and his drum through it. The cops’ action underscores the inequity of the justice system. If he were white, they probably wouldn’t arrest him. The cops find it “inconvenient” to believe Tarek’s explanation. Nor do they follow Walter’s advice to check his card to verify Tarek’s truthfulness.
Discovering Tarek is undocumented, they put him in a detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for Tarek’s situation, Walter hires an attorney, visits Tarek and keeps Zainab encouraged. It is in the detention center that we note the cruelty toward the undocumented, who are treated as criminals, though they are asylum seekers and willing to work for a better life for themselves. The music, lyrics and Lorin Latarro’s choreography, especially in “World Between Two Worlds” sung by Tarek, Walter and the Ensemble are superbly expressive, heart-wrenching and powerful.
As the stakes become higher in the second turning point, Tarek’s mother Mouna (the effecting, soulful Jacqueline Antaramian), visits Walter’s apartment looking for Tarek. Events complicate. Walter finds Mouna appealing and authentic. Mouna and Zainab ride the Staten Island Ferry. They finally become friends (“Lady Liberty”), and share how they believed the seductive promises of the “American Dream.” Because Mouna and Zainab may never see Tarek again in the U.S., Walter becomes the one they must turn to (“Heart in Your Hands,” “Blessings,” “Such Beautiful Music.”). Beyond hope (“What Little I Can Do”), Walter does his best, but the institutions fail him as they have failed us for years.
It is through the relationships with Tarek, Mouna, Zainab that Walter’s humanity and empathy are stirred to change his soul and his direction in life. It is the love for Tarek and the hope of his release that changes Mouna’s and Zainab’s relationship with each other. And their relationship with Walter establishes a new level of understanding that there are “good” people who will help. Finally, it is the stirring of Tarek’s concern for Zainab, that helps him realize his spiritual love and connection with her is not bounded by the material plane (“My Love is Free”), or held in by the walls of his jail cell, or deportation back to Syria. And it is that spiritual love for her and his connection to Walter that will help him face whatever he encounters.
As an archetype for all sane individuals, Walter realizes the issues underlying Tarek’s, Zainab’s, Mouna’s situation. We are to agree with him, the creative team hopes. These individuals are not “the other” that their nationless position or the white supremacists’ stereotyping suggests they are: dangerous, encroaching, grifting. In the showstopping “Better Angels,” David Hyde Pierce prodigiously, emotionally expresses his song-prayer for Tarek. He petitions against the injustice of Tarek’s situation. Our nation should act better, but it has become unmoored from its founding ideals of liberty and the inalienable rights of human beings (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”).
As Pierce sings, the irony of an older, white gentleman whose life has been bled out of him, standing in the gap for a young undocumented Syrian, who is full of vitality and hope, wanting to live his life to the fullest in a country that doesn’t deserve him, is beyond fabulous. It is also heartbreaking. Pierce, impassioned, speak/sings it out into the nether regions of spiritual consciousness. Is anyone listening? Have we forsaken our citizen right to help others?
I apologize for being moved for I thought of what was to come because of these failed immigration policies which continued and inspired the former President Donald Trump’s white supremacist agenda: kids in camps at the Southern Border, kids lost to parents for years, the undocumented dying in stifling heat and horrific conditions, proud Trumpers appreciating Steven Miller’s cruelty, while donating to grifter Steve Bannon’s fake “Build the Wall” fund.
The Visitor presciently, horrifically intimates what happens if injustice and cruelty are institutionalized and the populace is inured to it or worse, uses xenophobia as a whipping post to domestically terrorize others for pleasure’s sake. White supremacists have evolved to do so precisely because of failed immigration policies which a craven, unhinged politician exploits for his own grifting agenda.
Equally terrifying is the war of attrition against decency, and the lack of wisdom to appreciate this historically as revealed by The Visitor. If we consider that critics are inured/jaded not to see in The Visitor the failed state of our culture in 2001-2007, that augmented during and after the Obama administration, the loss of that understanding bears reviewing. And while many were thrilled with former President Obama, in the shadows, white supremacy groups grew by demonizing “the other.” Sadly, they blossomed to a “first wave,” who supported a president against democratic values, one who followed up with inhuman, indecent acts from immigration crimes to COVID deaths.
The character of Walter reminds white males it’s OK to be humane and decent and empathetic. To think this production is not “current” enough via its historical perspective is misguided.
In Kitt’s, Yorkey’s, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s musical, Tarek and Mouna symbolize the courageous willing who take horrific risks. We need to be reminded of this again and again. Sullivan’s profound direction prompts the musical to change our perspective through empathy and identification. Thematically, The Visitor suggests we no longer allow ourselves to be like inconsequential stones kicked around by politicians. What is it like to sustain the impossible hardship of leaving all that was familiar and comforting in the hope of escaping catastrophe, only to never gain the security sought (“Where Is Home?/No Home”)? As climate change continues to roil the planet and immigration issues worsen, we can’t drop a stitch of understanding or subdue an impulse to assist in whatever way we can.
The actors/singers, phenomenal swings, musicians and creative team stir us to listen to the production’s call to arms. We must reform our failed immigration policies that have caused horrific pain for asylum seekers and dreamers, as they wait for citizenship to no avail. Not only must changes be made, they must be made permanent so that no Executive Order, lawsuit or state can reverse it to pleasure white supremacists.
Specific shout outs to David Zinn’s evocative scenic design: the steel backdrop of the detention center and its ironic contrast, Walter’s comfortable apartment. Kudos to Toni-Leslie James (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), and others who helped to make The Visitor a compelling, must-see production. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.