If I had the time and money, I could happily sit through every single performance of the exceptionally cast, musically perfect, joyous and glorious Broadway revival of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical of fairy tale mashups, moral probing, and community responsibility, which is playing a limited run through the end of the summer at the St. James Theatre.
To say that this production transferred to Broadway is an understatement. It practically leaped to Broadway following its premiere two months ago as part of the annual Encores! season concert-style revivals at City Center. The enthusiasm and acclaim was so palpable that it would have been criminal not to bring it to Broadway, although the move necessitated some significant cast changes.
The production joins other first-rate renderings of Sondheim’s work that have premiered since the composer-lyricist’s death in November at age 91, including the gender-reversed Broadway revival of “Company” and Stephen Spielberg’s film remake of “West Side Story.”
As directed by Lear deBessonet, this is a straightforward and simple staging that emphasizes the richness of the score and script and relies on the strengths of a full orchestra and superb ensemble cast.
As much as I liked it at City Center, it was still coming together at the time, which was not surprising in light of the complexity of the score, shaded characters, and limited rehearsal time. On Broadway, the production is much sharper and the performances are more nuanced.
It’s hard to pick and choose favorites among the cast because everyone is so damn good, including Julia Lester’s sly and confident Little Red, Patina Miller’s striking and sexy Witch, Phillipa Soo’s heartfelt Cinderella, Cole Thompson’s bright Jack, Brian d’Arcy James’ well-meaning Baker, Sara Bareilles’ improvisational Baker’s Wife, Gavin Creel’s foppish Cinderella’s Prince and hammy Wolf, and Joshua Henry’s exuberant Rapunzel’s Prince. Even the cow Milky White (now a full-size, hand-operated puppet operated in full view of the audience) is a standout.
Ironically, the revival is across the street from “The Phantom of the Opera,” which opened during the same season as the original production of “Into the Woods” 35 years ago. While “Phantom” has continued to play the Majestic Theatre, “Into the Woods” has also always been around, receiving professional revivals and amateur productions, in addition to a starry 2014 film version and a live capture of the original production on PBS.
It is a complex and deeply-felt musical that always seems to draw a connection to real world crises such as AIDS, 9/11, and COVID-19 and offer hope for the future, making it infinitely meaningful and revivable.
St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., intothewoodsbway.com. Through Aug. 21.