Broadway’s 2022 revival of Steven Sondheim and James Lapine’s fan favorite fairy tale musical, “Into the Woods,” has come to Boston, and, if Friday’s audience was any indication, Bostonians could not be happier. Familiar, yet subversive — twisting together such familiar storylines of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella — the show has had a voracious fandom ever since its first debut on Broadway in 1987. That passion was incredibly tangible in Friday’s audience, who was ready to laugh and cheer and “oooh” from the rise of the curtain.
Katy Geraghty particularly made an impression as a spunky and murderous Little Red Riding Hood. Her character came alive in every note she sang, always pitch perfect yet appropriately gritty with mischief at just the right moments. Jason Forbach and Gavin Creel’s wonderfully shallow princes were another success: their ridiculous physicality, pompously coiffed hair, and bright, clashing costume pieces delivered the requisite charming cliches.
Yet by the end of the night, the favorite (or, at least, my favorite) was Milky White, the cow, puppeteered brilliantly by Kennedy Kanagawa. Often played by an actor in a onesie, or simply represented by a cardboard cut-out, this Milky White was more sentient than your average cow. Kanagawa endeared us to his puppet with cleverly directed use of Milky White’s head, skillfully toeing the line between naturalistic and personifying. Expression on Kanagawa’s own face, as well, was central to the character. When (spoiler alert!) Milky White died, Kanagawa simply dropped the puppet to the ground with a matter-of-fact plop! of wood on wood. There were amused gasps of horror from the audience — perhaps especially from those who were familiar with the plot. Then, covering his mouth with gloved hands, Kanagawa paused as if he too was shocked before sprinting frantically off-stage. It was a beautifully confusing — and quintessentially “Into the Woods” — moment: where did Milky White the puppeteer end and Milky White the puppet begin?
Though championed by these characters and such brilliant moments of rediscovery, what defines this revival production is its simplicity. “Into the Woods” has previously been known for the spectacle — often aiming for a rich portrayal of fantasy worlds with expensive sets and costumes — but this version is stripped down. It relies mostly on a few suggestive set pieces and key props, and puts the orchestra in full-view in a constructed on-stage “pit.”
With this sparse background, the show cleverly leans into the pantomime theme: puppetry brings pets and giants to life; magic is portrayed simply, without special effects; and the curtain comes up on both acts to a tableau of the main characters. In these and other moments, too, the cast flirted with blurring and breaking the fourth wall — an act that feels at home both in this old-school genre and in Sondheim and Lapine’s original concept. The thoroughly theater kid energy of this specific audience, too, encouraged this blurring a bit further. Stephanie J. Block, as the Baker’s Wife, played “Moments in the Woods” almost entirely to an adoring front row.
However, not all the elements of this stripped down vision work as well — for example, the choice to place Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace” not on the steps of the palace. There was also a missed opportunity for light design in many places, such as “Giants in the Sky” — which really needs some visual help, especially on an otherwise bare set. “Hello, Little Girl” (a simultaneously dark and comedic swing tune sung by the Wolf to Little Red) was a very clever exception. Perhaps this was intentional and the limited lighting was intended to contribute to the pantomime theme, but at moments it felt glaringly obvious the minimalism was more of a budget issue than a creative choice.
Sondheim himself consulted on the development of this production, and though he has been known to make changes to his own work — including for the 2014 “Into the Woods” film — not much was different here from the 2006 Broadway revival. The orchestration was limited — again, perhaps for money reasons — and the minor alterations present in the film version were all reversed. Yet, as ever, Sondheim’s memorable musical themes and beautifully verbose lyrics bring heartbreaking reality and nuance to the fairy tales they illustrate. We laughed, we cried, we probably mouthed the lyrics a little bit under our masks … We all did that, right?