Encores' Into the Woods Fulfills Every Wish


Into the Woods cast, photo @ Sara Krulwich

Every once in a blue moon, a performance is so wonderful that the entire evening is an exchange of joy and love between the audience and the performers. In my lifetime of theater-going, I can count the times this happened on the fingers of one hand. Last night was one of those times. The sold-out two-week Encores! production of Into the Woods fulfilled every wish anyone could have had for this musical. 

Harada, Thompson, and the amazing puppet Milky White
Where do I start? The amazing cast was pitch-perfect. Encores! only allows for a very brief rehearsal period, but all the performers displayed such comedic timing that all the jokes landed, and the three-hour evening flew by. Director Lear deBossenet created a simple yet well-planned production that was obviously meant for people who love this musical. The sets were simple -- a few white birch tree drops for the "woods," with the costumes providing most of the ambience. The show cleverly had performers carrying scores that were disguised as fairy-tale books. The fifteen-member orchestra made Stephen Sondheim's score sound glorious.

Maybe the best part of the evening was the Milky White cow being a huge, expressive puppet. Kennedy Kanagawa masterfully manipulated the cow puppet so that the cow became another character with feelings and emotions, just like the humans. The bond between Jack and Milky White was touching.

There was not a single weak link among the cast. Neil Patrick-Harris and Sara Bareilles anchored the show with their funny, earthy, and ultimately tragic Baker and Baker's Wife. Anyone who saw Sara Bareilles' Jenna in Waitress will not be surprised that in addition to having a beautiful singing voice, she brought and earthy humor and charm to the Baker's Wife. Just the way she ordered Little Red Riding Hood to put down her knife cracked me up. NPH conveyed all of the Baker's desperation and essential decency.

Lester and Creel, photo @ Joan Marcus
Julia Lester was absolutely hilarious as the spunky, cheeky Little Red Riding Hood. Gavin Creel was so silky-voiced as the Wolf/Prince that his seduction of Baker's Wife in "Any Moment" was almost forgivable. It helped that Creel and Bareilles' voices blended perfectly and they had great chemistry (they actually were a wonderful Jenna/Dr. Pomatter pair in Waitress). Cole Thompson was sweet and naive as Jack, and Ann Harada hysterical as Jack's mother. Heather Headley plays the Witch as a Beyonce-like power diva. She has a gorgeous belt and "Last Midnight" was every bit the show-stopping 11-o-clock number it was meant to be.

The roles of Cinderella (Denee Benton) and Rapunzel (Shereen Pimentel) are slightly less meaty, but both ladies brought sweet soprano voices and winning personalities. Jason Forbach was a last-minute step-in as Rapunzel's Prince but he was wonderful.

Bareilles and Creel, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The only part of the evening that didn't really work for me was the use of a community chorus in the "Children Will Listen" finale. The community chorus were spread out among the City Center auditorium as the house lights came on. It quite frankly seemed way too precious, in an evening that otherwise avoided any urge to be "cute."

The musical is extremely funny, and (unlike Prince Charming) it's charming and sincere. The only sad part of the evening was thinking how much Stephen Sondheim would have enjoyed watching this production. That, and the fact that the applause was so loud that Cinderella's final line of "I wish" was drowned out by noise.


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