A glorious journey Into the Woods

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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.

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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.

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

I believe! Book of Mormon really is that good

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Phyre Hawkins (left) provides an African send-off to Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Gavin Creel, center) and Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) in The Book of Mormon at the Curran Theatre. Below: Creel (center) and the cast celebrate the profane and profound joys of The Book of Mormon. Photos by Joan Marcus

Take it on faith: The Book of Mormon is every bit as profane and profound and funny and sweet as everyone says it is. The monster Broadway hit about Mormon missionaries in Uganda is now working its way around the country and just opened a sold-out, five-week run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season.

Herewith, The Book of Theater Dogs on The Book of Mormon:

For I believe…that creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez have crafted a musical that is old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, that is outrageous and (for the faint of heart) shocking while never roaming too far from the heartfelt center of the show. A true musical comedy in which the music is not only hummable but also energizing and exciting, Mormon inspires huge waves of laughter. You know when individual lyrics get laughs – not just punchlines and dialogue – you’re doing something right. The fact that Parker, Lopez and Stone collaborated on music, lyrics and book is fascinating and most likely accounts for expertly honed 2 1/2-hour production, which runs like a precision instrument without ever feeling cold or mechanical. Credit must also go to co-directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw, who also contributed the zesty choreography, for keeping the machine running at such an efficient clip. The only number in the entire show that doesn’t feel quite right to me, the one number that feels like something directly out of Stone and Parker’s “South Park” empire is the Act 2 “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which needlessly goes for cheap laughs using people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran.

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For I believe…amid all the silliness and the nonstop attempts to skewer everything under the pop-culture sun, there’s a serious examination of faith here – its power, its abuses and its grace. Mormons provide an easy target because they’re distinctly American, they’ve only been around for 182 years and their actual Book of Mormon (sort of a third chapter to the Bible) contains some pretty far-out stuff like God living on a planet called Kolob and the notion that there were highly evolved tribes in ancient North America and that in the three days after his crucifixion, Jesus visited this tribe. (All these examples come from the show, but they all come from the teachings.) But the point here isn’t to make fun of Mormons, well, OK, it is a little bit, but this is high-speed broadband making fun of everyone. The point is more to say something about how powerful a human being’s faith is, how a human chooses to place that faith and the responsibility of whatever person or group is the recipient of that faith. The details about the Mormon teachings are funny because they seem as sci-fi as they do sacred, but nothing detailed here is any more outrageous than say a god taking corporeal form in a manger-born baby under a bright star that attracted visitors and little drummer boys from far and wide. Faith in itself is hopeful and life-affirming and a means to connect with other humans and with the divine, whatever that may be. The Book of Mormon, for all its Broadway trappings (and the spoofs of Wicked, The Sound of Music and The King and I and The Lion King among others are kind of brilliant in and of themselves), actually has something serious to say about the care and feeding of belief.

For I believe…the touring production is every bit as good as the original Broadway production. The painted flat sets by Scott Pask, the sharp lighting by Brian MacDevitt and the nine-piece orchestra (under the musical direction of Cian McCarthy and with musical supervision and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus) are all in great shape. Nothing is out of place here, but that’s as it should be for tickets that reportedly cost up into the hundreds of dollars. The real charm of the show, for all its sturdy construction and technical efficiency, comes from the cast, and in leads Gavin Creel as idealistic, egotistical Elder Price and Jared Gertner as shlubby misfit Elder Cunningham, we have two performers who know exactly how to generate big laughs without going for big laughs. Creel’s animated face and startlingly long arms (seriously, like the alien at the end of Close Encounters) make him cartoonish in the best way. He can get a laugh just from smiling or widening his eyes. And his voice is golden, no more so than on the show’s centerpiece ballad, “I Believe.” Gertner’s character could be just a variation on “South Park’s” tubby, belligerent Cartman, but in the right hands, like Gertner’s, Elder Cunningham emerges as a passionate, intelligent young man with barely a trace of social skills and a desperate need for connection. Gertner is absolutely hilarious as he mangles the Mormon teachings by infusing them with Hobbits, Star Wars characters and complete nonsense that his Ugandan disciples completely take to their hearts. Creel and Gertner make a great team (the former is lanky and tall, the latter is not), and they get great support from Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, an innocent Ugandan woman who “texts” using an old typewriter and Grey Henson as the gay-but-can’t-talk-about-it Elder McKinley. Henson leads the troupe on the show’s stand-out number, “Turn It Off,” an ode to deep repression that includes sparkly vests and fantastic tapping. Kevin Mambo as Nabalungi’s dad also stops the show with “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a “Hakuna Matata” send-up that translates to “fuck you, God.”

And lo, the audiences, they did laugh. The performers, they did expend much talent and energy. And God, not seeming to mind the middle finger, decreed that the money shall pour forth, and the world of musical theater has another touchstone until the next mega-hit doth rise. I believe.

[bonus interview]
I talked to the Book of Mormon creative team and members of the touring company cast for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]
Here’s original Broadway star Andrew Rannells (now on NBC’s “The New Normal”) Elder Price’s big Act 2 number “I Believe,” sung just before an encounter with a Ugandan warlord results in the placing of The Book of Mormon in a very uncomfortable body cavity.

The Book of Mormon is sold out. Sorry. But don’t despair completely. A limited number of $29 tickets are distributed by lottery two hours before each performance. The show continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.