Theater review | A worthwhile return ‘Into the Woods’

Neil Patrick Harris, Sara Bareilles, Heather Headley
Neil Patrick Harris, Sara Bareilles, Heather Headley in the revival of “Into the Woods.”
Photo by Joan Marcus

A few days after the end of the 2021-22 Broadway season, the most exciting and satisfying theater production of the spring has arrived: a starry, nearly-sold-out concert revival of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical of fairytale mashups and psychological and moral probing, as part of the Encores! series at City Center. 

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.”

“Into the Woods” has little in common with the other two shows that comprised the 2022 Encores! Season (“The Tap Dance Kid,” “the Life”), which were little-known shows that underwent substantial revisions (which ultimately proved to be problematic and controversial, raising serious questions about the future of the Encores! series).

By comparison, “Into the Woods” is a well-known musical that has received many professional revivals over the years (including Broadway in 2002, Shakespeare in the Park in 2012, and Off-Broadway in 2015), as well as a splashy 2014 film adaptation. However, this is an especially appropriate time to revisit “Into the Woods.” Its emphasis on community, working together to face a serious threat, and dealing with tragedy will surely resonate with audience members after two years of the pandemic.

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, including but not limited to Heather Headley (“Aida”) as the Witch, Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker, Sara Bareilles (“Waitress”) as the Baker’s Wife, Denée Benton (“The Gilded Age”) as Cinderella, and Gavin Creel (“Hello, Dolly!”) as Cinderella’s Prince/the Wolf.

During the finale, a large, age-diverse chorus joins the cast and fills the entire auditorium. Though well-meaning, it is an oversized and unnecessary gesture.  

The performance I attended on Thursday night was occasionally bumpy, with many missed cues and flubbed lines (with Bareilles even needing to pause in the middle of her big second act solo because she forgot the lyric), but that is not surprising given the complexity of the score and the limited rehearsal time. It will likely get tighter as its two-week run continues, and I certainly hope it transfers to Broadway next season. 

City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org. Through May 15.

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