curtain call

Neil Patrick Harris and Sara Bareilles take a familiar trek ‘Into the Woods’

Into the Woods
(l to r) Neil Patrick Harris, Sara Bareilles and Heather Headley in Into the Woods. Photo by Joan Marcus

Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest theater openings on Broadway and beyond.

The Rundown:

New York City Center Encores! revisits Into the Woods, with a starry cast including Neil Patrick Harris and Sara Bareilles as a childless baker and his wife. The original Broadway production premiered nearly 35 years ago, winning three Tony Awards, and was later revived in 2002, starring Vanessa Williams as the Witch. A 2014 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep in the same role received mixed reviews. Still, the fairytale mash-up proves to be a favorite of Sondheim fans for its witty lyrics and parable exploration of family, loss, and crumbling social structures.

No Tea, No Shade:

Into the Woods plops Cinderella (Denée Benton), Little Red Riding Hood (Julia Lester), and Jack of beanstalk fame (Cole Thompson) into the baker’s story, along with a next-door witch (Heather Headley) to brew up further trouble. The first act follows familiar plot lines — Cinderella meets a prince (Gavin Creel), Jack scales a beanstalk — as the stories intersect amid the baker and his wife’s quest to undo a spell keeping them barren.

Related: ‘Funny Girl’ and a Broadway revival’s identity crisis

But it is the musical’s second act where the fairytales further fracture as the giant (voiced by Annie Golden) descends from the clouds to wreak havoc. Cottages are crushed and villagers sacrificed all in the name of survival. Sondheim’s score, along with a book by James Lapine, deftly navigates humor with horrific, putting forth themes that continue to resonate since the show’s first inception.

Director Lear deBessonet has assembled a skillful set of actors, refreshingly diverse compared to the show’s original company. With only a brief rehearsal period, it’s no small feat to learn a Sondheim score, this one in particular. Complex lyrical structures and melodic leaps nearly herculean appear effortless, with most of the company choosing to forgo performing book-in-hand.

Grammy winner Sara Bareilles, who wrote the music for the musical adaptation of Waitress and eventually stepped into the title role, is a Sondheim natural. Her six studio albums, filled with equally demanding vocal range and nuanced lyrics, have served as ample preparation for a fast-paced trip into the woods.

Neil Patrick Harris as her traditionalist husband who wants to keep her housebound rather than enlist help in undoing the spell, delivers his usual charm. No stranger to Sondheim, Harris has appeared in concerts and productions of Company, Assassins, and Sweeney Todd.

In the musical’s last moments, Into the Woods gets lost. In an effort to amplify community engagement, deBossonet deploys amateur talent into the aisles for the show’s final reprise. The Public Theater has been far more successful in such integrations with its Public Works program. Here, it feels like an afterthought to fulfill a grant requirement.

Into the Woods
The cast of New York City Center Encores! Into the Woods. Photo by Joan Marcus

Let’s Have a Moment:

Heather Headley, who made her Broadway debut 25 years ago in the original production of The Lion King and later won a Tony Award for her title role in Aida, brings a fresh take to the Witch. Now with three children of her own, listening to Headley’s desperate plead in “Stay With Me” and cautionary wisdom in “Children Will Listen” echoes as a call to action as our world faces unprecedented humanitarian crises.

Also worth noting is the exceptional puppetry of Kennedy Kanagawa, who manipulates the creations of puppet designer James Ortiz. Kanagawa brings Jack’s cow Milky White and other inanimate objects to life with emotionally fueled specificity.

Into the Woods
(l to r) Kennedy Kanagawa and Cole Thompson in Into the Woods. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Last Word:

With Sondheim’s passing last year, theatergoers may have even more reverence for the composer-lyricist’s body of work. The City Center Encores! production of Into the Woods, while not revelatory, doesn’t necessarily need to be. Part of the series’ mission is to “look at the ways that musical theater connects us.” And while that’s a broad enough statement to apply to nearly any show, this particular work asks us to unflinchingly hold ourselves accountable for our actions.

In a moment of clarity, the Baker and his wife unify their efforts, singing, “Let’s hope the changes last.”

Change, they learn, only comes from sustained empathy. And that’s a fairytale worthy of reality.

Into the Woods plays at New York City Center through May 15.