For many audiences, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” has become not only their entry point into the late Broadway composer‘s work but also to Broadway theater itself. Credit the universal subject matter — the fractured retelling of classic fairy tales — or Rob Marshall’s 2014 mixed bag of a film, or perhaps the countless school and community theater productions that have been mounted since the show debuted 35 years ago. But Sondheim’s first big Broadway hit remains a somewhat flawed vehicle for his epic talents, particularly in the lumpy second act.
Yet director Lear deBessonet’s lively new Broadway revival, which opened Sunday at the St. James Theatre after a successful run last month in the Encores! series at New York City Center, dispels virtually every reservation or doubt a pesky critic could have about the show.
The stripped-down staging, with music director Rob Berman’s orchestra center stage and only the simplest of sets (by David Rockwell), certainly helps matters, and so does the star-studded cast of Tony winners (and some very talented newcomers) who seem to be vying mightily to steal the show from each other.
They do so by leaning into the humor of Lapine’s book, with some well-placed updates and sly line readings that make it clear that nobody is taking the plight of fairy-tale characters too seriously. Gavin Creel (“Hello, Dolly!”) and Joshua Henry (“The Scottsboro Boys”) camp it up as the two preening princes, Philippa Soo (“Hamilton”) is the picture of yearning as Cinderella and Julia Lester (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”) is a plucky delight as Little Red, who belts some of her notes while her mouth is stuffed with pastries.
Pop star turned Broadway composer Sara Bareilles and Brian D’Arcy James (“Something Rotten”) help ground the drama with their more serious storyline about a baker and his wife’s quest to lift an infertility curse placed on them by a neighboring witch, played with a diva-like grandeur by Patina Miller (“Pippin”). The biggest scene-stealer turns out to be Milky White, a life-size puppet (designed by James Ortiz) brought to expressive, look-at-me life by Cameron Johnson at the performance I attended (he was filling in for Kennedy Kanagawa, out with COVID).
All that talent is put to very good use in this pencil-sharp, fast-paced production — whose high points are many and often beanstalk-high. They help to disguise some of the shortcomings of the musical, from Sondheim’s unfortunate and awkward attempts to re-create 1980s rap to a second act that forgets to leave breadcrumbs of relatability as it meanders into a thicket of philosophical abstractions. But even as the story turns darker, and Miller abandons her raps for some of Sondheim’s best ballads (“Children Will Listen,”) deBessonet keeps the pacing brisk and the focus clear. There’s good reason why we continue to be drawn to this show, and these grim Grimm tales, after all this time.