ABOVE: Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus, a real-life married couple, are the Baker’s Wife and the Baker in the national touring company of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. BELOW: David Patrick Kelly (left) is the Mysterious Man, Kennedy Kanagawa (center) is the puppeteer for Milky White the cow and Cole Thompson is Jack (of the beanstalk fame). Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
By all accounts, last year’s New York City Center Encores! production of Into the Woods, the beloved fairytale mash-up by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, was a special kind of magic. Director Lear deBessonet stripped away all the fairytale frippery and let the actors and Sondheim’s glorious score shine through. Even when the show transferred to Broadway and cast members started to rotate in and out, it seems the magic just couldn’t be dampened. Surely, when the production began its national tour, it would be rather less luminous version of itself.
Based on what is on stage at the Curran Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, this Into the Woods is destined to be the version that makes musical theater audiences react like they’re at a Taylor Swift concert. At least that was the case at Tuesday’s opening-night performance. From the instant the curtain rose swiftly up to reveal a large slice of the cast, the audience roared its approval, and that roar only increased over the next few hours.
Everything about this Woods is so confident, clear and crisp that you merely need to exhale and be swept up in the swift moving joys of great actors, beautiful voices and a score that continually reveals treasures no matter how many times you’ve heard it. In short, this production – which is full of performers who also did this on Broadway – really is as delightful and as heart-expanding as we’ve heard it is.
At the center of the story is the Baker’s Wife and the Baker’s Wife’s Husband (aka The Baker) played by real-life marrieds Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus, and they exemplify so much of why this production works so beautifully. They carefully tread the line between cartoonish and realistic. They get big laughs when they need to and just as easily trigger the tears. They are as warm and charming as they can be, but they’re also precise and magnificent when it comes to the music and the lyrics. They are simultaneously theatrical and relatable – we get that they’re storybook characters on a quest to kill the curse that has rendered them childless, but we also care about them.
Block’s full-body delight at her dalliance with a prince in the woods (“Any Moment” performed with the sterling Gavin Creel, who provokes full-body delight in the entire theater) is palpable, so it’s no surprise that her “Moments in the Woods,” which follows, is an emotionally complex (adultery is fun! or is it?), joyfully vigorous showstopper.
The way this show works its magic is also evident in Milky White, the cow belonging to and best friend of Jack (Cole Thompson, who will later tangle with giants at the top of the beanstalk. Sure, it’s a puppet (designed by James Ortiz) operated by a skilled puppeteer, but that doesn’t begin to convey how much emotion surrounds this cow with the sad, sparkly eyes. Kennedy Kanagawa masterfully manipulates the decrepit bovine, but his physical dexterity and expressive face complete the equation in ways that continually surprise and captivate. It’s a simple idea with a huge payoff.
Every detail has been attended to here, and the 16-piece orchestra (in full view on stage) conducted by John Bell ensures that Sondheim’s music is the life blood of the show. Lyrics are so clear that no whiff of enchantment, cynicism, despair, grief or arrogance goes unnoticed, and Bell keeps the show moving swiftly – not too fast but just fast enough that the fairytale glee of the first act lingers long enough to undergird the reality that intrudes in Act 2 (when the body count begins to rival a Shakespearean tragedy). With the orchestra on stage, this could come across as a staged concert, but it doesn’t. David Rockwell’s simple set – a few set pieces and just enough large birch tree trunks to convey a forest – relies on the sharp lighting by Tyler Micoleau and the simple costumes (by Andrea Hood) to add color and tone.
There is no shortage of standout moments and performances, but Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and his compatriot Jason Forbach as Rapunzel’s Prince, mine every last laugh out of their duet, “Agony” and its woefully domesticated reprise. David Patrick Kelly is a robust narrator and actually makes sense of the Mysterious Man, who is so moving on “No More,” a duet with the Baker. Katy Geraghty is the embodiment of innocence and experience wrestling under a blood-red cape as a tart Little Red Ridinghood. Diane Phelan‘s soprano soars on Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace,” and Felicia Curry, filling in for Montego Glover as the Witch on Tuesday, electrifies on “Stay With Me” and the impossibly moving “Children Will Listen.”
Sophisticated and silly, sublime and deeply moving, Into the Woods – especially this Into the Woods – is the fairytale we most need to experience in all its musical theater glory.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods continues a brief run through June 25 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $90-$299. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com