Review: Into the Woods at Blumenthal PAC
By Perry Tannenbaum
Replete with wit and amazingly intricate rhyme and wordplay, intertwining no less than five fairytales, all brightly sprinkled with pseudo profundity, Steven Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS has always left me with an aftertaste of being too clever and too cerebral. For me, it’s the polar opposite of The Sound of Music, which always has me worrying whether my glucose reading will spike the following morning. Dreading my next encounter with both of these musicals, I’m invariably surprised by how satisfied I am while I’m still in the hall and their stories unfold.
Until this week, that is, when the touring version of the posthumous 2022 revival of Sondheim’s gem rolled into Charlotte, just a little over three months after closing on Broadway. Directed by Lear deBessonet and bringing a generous bouquet from the Great White Way of players who were in the opening-night and replacement casts, this new INTO THE WOODS, dedicated to Sondheim’s memory and now at Belk Theater, breaks the spell, dispelling the aftertaste of so many local and regional productions I have seen.
Of course, the clever and resourceful meshing of multiple fairytales in Act 1 still delights, but after so many reprises, it doesn’t astonish anymore. No, what knocked me over was the extensive rebalancing and reimagining of Act 2, which had always scored many of its points but had also seemed intent on ruining the magic that Sondheim had crafted before intermission.
In deBessonet’s hands, the emphasis has shifted away from the spurious “children will listen” trope that was so loudly flouted by the strayings of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack of “Beanstalk” fame. You may also perceive the connection between “The Last Midnight” sung by the Witch deep into Act 2 with the three midnights she gave the Baker and his Wife before intermission to collect various charms from those more famous fairytale protagonists in order to achieve the couple’s dream of having a child.
With its new emphasis on the “you are not alone” refrain, this journey Into the Woods proves that Sondheim does have a heart – and plenty of it. Tears were already welling up for me as soon as I knew that soothing phrase was about to be sung.
At the center of all this wonder is Montego Glover’s electrifying performance as the Witch. All too often, the defanged and chastened Witch is portrayed as reformed and fundamentally changed after intermission. That impression, a holdover from previous encounters with Sondheim’s Witch, didn’t last long here. Glover is still playing the blame game viciously, maliciously, and fiercely after regaining her youth, pointing her crooked finger at Jack as a surviving She-Giant from above wreaks rampaging vengeance upon the whole kingdom.
Feeling the impact of the Witch’s damage as keenly as her primal yearning for motherhood, Stephanie J. Block as the Baker’s Wife comes fairly close to stealing the show back from Glover. Until Glover’s devastating “Last Midnight” comes along, Block’s “Moments in the Woods” stands as the peak showstopper of the evening, poignant, raunchy, and comical.
Before those powerhouse women take charge, Gavin Creel and Jason Forbach file legitimate claims to sovereignty as the two Princes in their “Agony” duets. Creel clearly drew the juicier royal role, reprising his Broadway turns as Cinderella’s Prince and Riding Hood’s Wolf. So he gets to woo Little Red with “Hello, Little Girl” in Act 1 and the Baker’s Wife with “Any Moment” after intermission. Fortunately for the audience, Creel is as full of himself as Glover.
Sebastian Arcelus, Block’s husband in real life, brings more self-doubt and less smug complacency to the Baker than I’ve seen before, further updating and humanizing the pair. As Jack, Cole Thompson gives us a credulous farmboy who might not be stupid. But the lad definitely needs looking after, and Aymee Garcia as Jack’s Mother gets plenty of free rein for motherly fretting and pragmatic exasperation.
While deBessonet had little leeway in making over Diane Phelan’s modest and wholesome Cinderella and even less with Alysia Velez’s Rapunzel – who sings only a few notes but no words – he allowed Katy Geraghty to go radically bratty as Little Red Riding Hood. With the “children will listen” motif thrown to the wolves, Little Red’s new orneriness works well.
Fans who treasure Sondheim’s braininess still have plenty to savor. With music director John Bell and his orchestra onstage behind the action; and with puppeteers wielding the monstrous feet of the Giant, a golden egg-laying chicken, and Jack’s personable Milky White cow (a mischievous Kennedy Kanagawa); the tension between magic and artifice remains suspended all evening long.
David Patrick Kelly as our Narrator even gets his own rostrum to declaim from as he pipes up every so often to tell our tale, dutifully turning pages as he pretends to read. Kelly’s various turns as the wizened and crouching Mysterious Man, switching from his Wizard of Oz formalwear to filthy rags as he bedevils the Baker, are a recurring treat, one of many, many winking reminders that we’re watching children’s theatre as adults.
Kudos to costume designer Andrea Hood, totally in on the mischief and fun, and puppet maker James Ortiz, whose designs will enchant young and old. Only a small but substantial number of empty seats were visible on Media Night, way up in the back of the second and third balconies. Count them as precious opportunities that were missed.