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A Sublime INTO THE WOODS launches a new season – Review

It is normal, although still a pity, that this rebirth of In the woods forfeited the tradition of a giant boot adorning the facade of its theatre. Lear DeBessonet’s pared-down staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s timeless classic, which is moving to the St James Theater after a sold-out Encores summer! run, draws the heart of the show by stripping it, with the most insistence, of its bases. No big set; no fancy effects here. Just imagine this boot.

In stripes Woods down to the essentials, the brilliantly brilliant DeBessonet has crafted a near-perfect revival that breathes intoxicating new life into a masterpiece we barely realized needed new life. It’s a remarkable evening, as effortlessly heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

Honestly, the production is so good it’s weirdly hard to criticize. That’s largely because there’s no concept to analyze, no catch to unbox. DeBessonet just puts on the show, as simply as you’ve ever seen it. No frills; no fuss: all heart.

The company | Photo: MurphyMade

As with a convincing Shakespeare or an expert O’Neill, this approach places Sondheim’s words above all else. Woods is one of the maestro’s most lyrically complex works, and at the St James’s you hear every delicious word – from the menacing, dripping “Hello, Little Girl”, to the warmly witty “It Takes Two”, to the bouncy and indecisive “On Les Marches du Palais. Not a nuance is lost, and thank God for that. I mean, come now: “But then what if he knew/Who you were when you know/That you ain’t what he thinks/Wants?” That’s good shit.

Pulling the beating heart out of a well-rehearsed work, a dream cast doesn’t hurt. This set here is unreal. Sara Bareilles is a luminous baker’s wife, infinitely patient but desperate for desire. Phillipa Soo’s Cinderella is equally wonderful, and in addition to singing it impeccably, Soo finds human humor in the princess’s hesitations. Patina Miller makes a triumphant return to Broadway as a witch, burning the stage with searing rage that gives way to disturbing grief.

Sara Bareilles | Photo: MurphyMade

Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry are perfect as the arrogant Princes, wackily jumping from one absurd pose to another at every beat (the choreography, by Lorin Latarro, is expert). Julia Lester makes a thrilling Broadway debut as Little Red Ridinghood, finding hysterical variations on even the most familiar lines. Only Cole Thompson, as Jack, feels underpowered – his “Giants in the Sky” are technically proficient but fail to find the layered meaning his co-stars so adeptly unearth.

As basic as it is, David Rockwell’s stage design is highly effective, leaving actors and esteemed Encores! orchestra comfortably share a spooky vast forest. Each of Andrea Hood’s lavish costumes tells a story in itself, whether it’s the Princes’ garish coats or the Witch’s stunning second-act dress, a harsh but no less striking purple for that.

Gavin Creel and Julia Lester | Photo: MurphyMade

The series’ devastating second act is always one emotional hammer blow after another, but in this staging the climax of the devastation comes with “No More,” the Baker’s wistful discussion of loss, despair and perseverance with his now deceased father:

Can’t we just get on with our lives

Without children and our wives?

‘Til that happy day comes,

How do you ignore

All the witches

All the curses…..

Everyone wonders what’s even worse

Still in store?

God knows how many critics have heralded the startling immediacy and powerful resonance of this number over the years, drawing parallels to any moment of instability audiences have experienced. But it testifies to the genius of Sondheim. Now that the man is gone, the sad toll of numbers with a cruel and exhausting world is all the more harsh.

A hush fell over the theater as the invaluable Brian D’Arcy James, the beating heart of this production, filled the words with mournful exhaustion, creating a moment of shared grief: whether for an icon well -lost loved ones, a world rapidly collapsing beneath us, all the horrors we feel powerless to prevent – or perhaps all of the above. If the theater is a collective liberation, there is no better than that.

In the woods is now performing at the St. James Theater on West 44th Street in New York City through August 21, 2022. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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