A glorious journey Into the Woods

Woods 1
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.

Woods 2
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

Fractured fairy tales shine in stripped-down Woods

Woods 1
The company of Into the Woods, a Fiasco Theater production that is part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as The Wolf. Photos by Joan Marcus

You’ve journeyed Into the Woods, but you haven’t ever been into these woods.

When great musicals are revived, the first question has to be: why? Is it going to be another retread of a successful prior production? Or will it be a reinvention, a new take for a new time? Happily the latter is the case with the glorious Fiasco Theater re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. This production, which debuted at Princeton’s McCarter Theater four years ago, is an unlikely candidate for a national tour, what with its stripped-down aesthetic and bare minimum cast – 10 performers, one pianist. But this show, which is coming to the end of its tour, dazzles in ways far beyond the whirligigs of massive sets and effects and the aural gleam of synthesizers or the blast of a full orchestra.

Part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre, this Woods might seem far too small and intimate for such a large house, but with an assist from set designer Derek McLane, who uses ropes and piano parts to create a sense of someone’s cavernous junk-strewn attic, co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld create a storyteller’s version of a show about the stories we tell. This is the kind of revival that makes you wonder if this is, at last, the telling of this particular story that was always meant to be. Strip away all the excess and just let Lapine’s sturdy book and Sondheim’s gloriously clever, powerfully moving score do the work they were intended to do.

Of course words and music could fall flat without the right performers to bring them to life, and Fiasco’s 11-member ensemble rises to the challenge of the show and then some. This is truly an ensemble, which feels exactly right for a show whose standout anthem is “No One Is Alone.” Every actor plays multiple roles. Every actor provides sound effects. Every actor helps pianist/music director Evan Rees fill out the score by playing, among instruments, cello, bassoon, guitar, French horn, penny whistle, trumpet, toy piano and baritone horn. My one concern about this production heading into it was that the rich score would feel too spare with only piano accompaniment, but I needn’t have worried. The show sounds different to be sure, but it sounds great and perfectly suited to this telling.

Woods 2

Lapine’s structure, which was obliterated in the lush, ultimately unsatisfying 2014 Disney movie version, takes advantage of the two-act structure to give us a Grimm mashup in Act 1, with Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame and an invented Mr. and Mrs. Baker scurrying through the woods, intersecting, clashing and causing general fairy tale mayhem on the way to their respective happy endings. Then, in Act 2, they get to the crux of the matter: what happens after happily ever after when no one is really satisfied, no one’s longing is really sated and there’s no such thing as happy, let alone ever after.

The massive amount of storytelling in Act 1 can grow cumbersome, even in the finest productions, but Fiasco solves the problem through the speed and time saved not having to worry about bulky sets and costumes. The actors convey everything they need to convey through the simplest means – Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters are “costumed” by curtains on a rod; Jack’s beloved cow, Milky White, is played by the expressive (and scene-stealing) actor Darick Pead, who also plays a stepsister and Rapunzel’s Prince. Birds are folded pieces of paper. A hen is a feather duster. The characterizations are so crisply delineated that even at high speeds, there’s never any confusion – rather the story seems even more filled with humor and spark.

Because this is a genuine ensemble, it’s hard to spotlight specific performances. Stephanie Umoh as the witch is especially powerful after the witch regains her youth and beauty but loses her magical powers. Patrick Mulryan as Jack sings a stunning “Giants in the Sky,” and as previously mentioned, his relationship with his old cow is the source of great humor and surprising poignancy. The princes’ duet on “Agony” is often a highlight of the show, and that is true here thanks to Anthony Chatmon II (who is also fantastic as the Wolf in “Hello, Little Girl”) and Pead. Lisa Helmi Johanson is equally striking as Little Red Riginghood and as Rapunzel, and Evan Harrington brings strong emotion to the Baker’s “No More,” which is matched by Eleasha Gamble as the Baker’s Wife delivering the emotional goods on “No One Is Alone” after the plaintive humor of “Moments in the Woods.”

A special shout-out to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind for the astonishing things he does with the wall of ropes at the back of the stage (which look like taut wires in a piano). He also evokes the terror of a giant causing carnage and mayhem with simple but incredibly effective blackouts and flashes.

The contrast between light and dark, silly and somber, archetypal and flesh and blood has never been more distinct than it is here, and the darkness, which is usually saved for Act 2 can be felt from the start, and conversely, the humor that is usually contained in the first act flares throughout the show. But it’s the ensemble nature of the show that really pays off here. Not only are all of these performers electrifyingly good, they work beautifully together. They are inspiring. And, at the end of the show, that’s the whole point. We get through it together more effectively than we do on our own. It’s not touchy-feely preaching. It’s practical; it’s soul deep; and we’re listening.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods continues through April 2 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60-$275. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com