Monday, December 5, 2022

He Said/He Said REVIEW: Into the Woods

As Mike and I are easing back into our normal levels theater-going, our goal for the 2022-2023 season is to see all of the musicals that open on Broadway - brand new or revival. So far, so good. 

Since our site has been on hiatus, though, we didn't publish reviews of two shows that we saw: 1776 and the subject of today's post, Into the Woods. Well, for these two, we've decided to try a new review format, where each of us jot down our thoughts on various aspects of the production separately. As the title says, these reviews are a "He Said/He Said" situation! We hope you like it, and will let us know your thoughts on the format.

Review of the Saturday, July 30, 2022 matinee performance at the St. James Theatre in New York City. Starring Sara Bareilles, Brian D'Arcy James, Patina Miller, Phillipa Soo, Cheyenne Jackson, Joshua Henry, Julia Lester and Cole Thompson. Book by James Lapine. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Set design by David Rockwell. Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau. Costume design by Andrea Hood. Sound design by Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann. Choreography by Lorin Lotarro. Direction by Lear deBessonet. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.
NOTE: This production continues through January 8, 2023, with a mostly different cast.

Mike first, then me!
Mike Says...Into the Woods
Direction & Choreography
Direction: Lear deBessonetShe did an amazing job within the confines of a staged concert performance. There were many very clever choices in terms of puppetry and creative staging.
Choreography: Lorin LatarroMinimal, but I can't imagine anyone came to see this show for the dancing!
Overall Comment:I wasn't looking for anything too fancy from an Encores transfer, but this was staged effectively.
Technical Elements
Set: David RockwellNot much to see here, just enough to set the scene. A few extra trees might have been nice, but we can't expect too much when the orchestra takes up half of the stage!
Lights: Tyler MicoleauNothing flashy (literally or figuratively), but got the job done.
Costumes: Andrea HoodLike most other elements, costumes were effective and understated.
Sound: Scott Lehrer and Alex NeumannI would say that the sound was unusually clear, if a bit subdued compared to most other current musicals.
Overall Comment:Technical elements were never going to be a big draw for this show, but the team gave us some nice things to look at.
Sara BareillesThe heart and soul of this production, I agree with others that she set a new standard for this role. Can't wait to see her on the stage again soon!
Brian d'Arcy JamesHis singing was stronger than that of most actors who've played this role. One of my favorite songs, "No More," can sometimes seem deliberately subdued, but he was allowed to go all-out.
Patina MillerA fine performance, if less flashy than some of her formidable predecessors. The show seemed to clearly belong to the baker and his wife, rather than the witch, which is probably the way it should be.
Phillipa SooAn inspired choice for a role that requires the perfect mix of innocence and ambition.
Cheyenne JacksonAlways a treat to see him in a musical! The outsized hilarity of the role is obviously a good fit for his talents.
Joshua HenryHe never disappoints - hope to see him in a bigger role soon. The princes' songs have generally been my least favorite parts of the show, but the combination of these two performers really elevated those scenes.
Julia LesterShe hit it out the park with her particularly self-aware take on this juicy role.
Cole ThompsonHe definitely stood out like no other Jack has before! A very promising start to what I hope will be a long Broadway career.
The EnsembleWonderful, of course. Among those who haven't been mentioned, Annie Golden stood out in a couple of background roles.
Breakout PerformancesLester, Thompson, and Kennedy Kanagawa.
Overall Comment:The cast is basically the raison d'etre of this production. I had heard so many wonderful things about them, and they exceeded my expectations.
Overall Impression
This production stood out for giving us a classic show, in its original form, performed by first-rate singers and musicians - basically, Encores' stock in trade. There have certainly been other productions with more impressive sets and evocative concepts, but that would be at odds with the purpose of this production.

Jeff Says...Into the Woods
Direction & Choreography
Direction: Lear deBessonetThere is plenty of darkness in these woods, as there should be. These Woods are, however, also the funniest of any version I've ever seen. Being able to laugh at the all too human foibles embodied by these characters feels so good these days. deBessonet embraces this in all the right ways without ever pushing for more than necessary, and all without relying on over the top "big Broadway" tricks or extravagances.
Choreography: Lorin LatarroInto the Woods has never been a dance-y show, but Ms. Latarro has picked fun places for a bit of footwork, all in the service of the production, and more importantly, the text itself.
Overall Comment:Given the confines of its original venue and circumstance, the production is bare bones by necessity, and the directorial/choreographic choices are limited spacially. But by focusing on tone and character specificity, both deBessonet and Lotarro bring out the richness of this well-known piece in unexpected and delightful ways.
Technical Elements
Set: David RockwellWith a full orchestra necessarily a part of the staging, Rockwell still allows for a variety of playing spaces, and, of course, trees. And the mini tableaux at the top of each act are delightful scene-setters!
Lights: Tyler MicoleauThey didn't interfere or make things difficult to see - not much of an impression, which is not a bad thing.
Costumes: Andrea HoodI immediately thought of a box of 8 Crayola crayons, with each character assigned a color. Ms. Hood then adds layers and textures depending on the depth of the character. Is it any wonder that the vacuous princes were a single, flat color, while the not yet mature Little Red starts out almost entirely in red, but ends up with more detailed, sophisticated red variations as her life becomes more complicated. Wordlessly conveying character growth is my favorite design concept!
Sound: Scott Lehrer and Alex NeumannGood sound design happens when you aren't aware of it. I wasn't aware of it once, so clear and perfectly balanced it was.
Overall Comment:All of the creatives have clearly worked together, creating a fairy tale world, clear, focused, and just inviting enough to allow our imagination to take over and fill in the blanks for ourselves.
Sara BareillesTHE highlight of this revival! What a talent! I knew she could sing it, but there was some damn fine acting there. I'd go so far as to say some of her choices felt definitive. More Sara on Broadway, please.
Brian d'Arcy JamesEasily the best singer I've seen in the role. His earnestness and vulnerability wamed my heart. And he matched Ms. Bareilles perfectly.
Patina MillerShe was fine in the role, especially in act two, where she brought a dark gravitas to the production. In no way is this a slight to Ms. Miller (I am a HUGE fan!), but by giving a quieter, more measured performance allowed for the Baker and his Wife to become the main focus - as I think it should be.
Phillipa SooThe great thing about casting Soo in this role was how effortlessly she conveyed strength and growth, while perfectly conveying innocence and confusion. She sang the role with ease.
Cheyenne JacksonFunny and sexy made Cheyenne the exact right choice for both the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. Cocksure and slightly vacant is right in he wheelhouse, and he clearly had a grand time.
Joshua HenryI don't think Mr. Henry can do anything wrong. I have yet to see him be less than amazing, including here, where he made this snack of a role feel like a full-course meal.
Julia LesterBlissfully self-aware and all-in on her growing sexual feelings, Miss Lester's Little Red was a hilarious revelation.
Cole ThompsonAt last a Jack that isn't just a dumb kid. Mr. Thompson's take on the giant killer is more complicated and nuanced than others I've seen. And, holy cow, what a singer!
The EnsembleEach had a moment to shine, and none got in the way. Aymee Garcia and Annie Golden were delightful as Jack's mother and the Giant, respectively.
Breakout PerformancesKennedy Kanagawa as Milky White was a mesmerizing delight - a truly astonishing performance. Julia Lester needs to come back to Broadway ASAP, and Cole Thompson is going to be a huge star. Mark my words, all three are going places!
Overall Comment:With Encores productions, the purpose is two-fold: to hear a classic as originally written and scored, and to see great acting bring it to life. Into the Woods does just that. The orchestra, sublime; the cast, flawless.
Overall Impression
Broadway is all the better for this bare bones, perfect-as-it-was Encores staging. No one involved in the transfer made the mistake of pumping it up for the Main Stem. Like Chicago before it, Into the Woods is a perfect jewel, polished to its brightest potential. What a shame it won't be around longer.

📸: M. Murphy

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