'Into the Woods': Theater Review

Into The Woods Performance - Hollywood Bowl - Production Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
A journey well worth taking.

A powerhouse cast that includes Sutton Foster, Skylar Astin, Patina Miller, Gaten Matarazzo and Cheyenne Jackson takes the annual Hollywood Bowl production to a new level with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's revisionist fairy-tale musical.

It's that time of year again, when the kids in Hollywood pull together a midsummer musical to shake off the doldrums. This weekend, for three days only, it's the Stephen Sondheim classic, Into the Woods, winner of three Tony Awards in 1988, including hardware for Sondheim and librettist James Lapine. Bernadette Peters gave a star turn as the Witch, but younger audiences now identify the role with Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 2014 film, co-starring Johnny Depp, James Corden and Emily Blunt. The cast for this production is not nearly as celebrated, but with Tony winners like Sutton Foster and Patina Miller heading the ensemble, the talent level is formidable.

An original, if convoluted, mashup combining Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, Into the Woods whimsically examines the hard line between fantasy and reality, and the need to take responsibility for our actions. If the Baker (Skylar Astin) and his wife (Sutton Foster) are to have the child they wish for, they must first break a spell cast by a neighboring Witch (Patina Miller), complying with her bizarre requests by embarking on a scavenger hunt through the world’s most memorable fairy-tales. 

Into the Woods features some of Sondheim's wittiest lyrics as well as achingly beautiful melodies; the score has aged gracefully, imbuing the storybook narrative with clever wordplay and compelling themes. And while Lapine's book was no doubt a bit fresher back when it was written in 1987, it remains engaging.

Knowing these summer intervals at the Bowl are usually thrown together in weeks, producers perhaps were rash in choosing a show as demanding as Into the Woods. With its nonstop singing, tricky pitch changes and myriad lyrics to memorize, it only works if made to look easy. The good news is this one works. 

In fact, it does more than work, it's frequently outstanding, notably in the performance of Miller as the Witch. Most will recognize the actress as Daisy Grant on Madam Secretary, a role that taxes few of the muscles that won her a Tony for the 2013 revival of Pippin. Here, Miller brings pathos to the heartrending aria "Stay With Me," toward the end of the first act, then blossoms into her younger self in the second act, dazzling in costume designer Ann Hould-Ward’s bewitching form-fitting magenta gown, and building to a beguiling rendition of "Last Midnight."

As the Baker's Wife, Foster (Younger) demonstrates why she has not one but two Tony Awards (Anything Goes, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and has been cast opposite Hugh Jackman in the revival of The Music Man, coming to Broadway in the fall of 2020. Her impeccable singing voice is a neat fit for her take-charge persona, which comes momentarily undone by Cheyenne Jackson’s obtuse but dreamy Prince.

Jackson emerges as a scene-stealer, bringing requisite dopey buoyancy to one of the show's highlights, "Agony," his duet with Chris Carmack (The O.C., Nashville). Doubling as the Wolf, Jackson cuts a rug in his charming number, "Hello, Little Girl," with Little Red Riding Hood, played by a perky Shanice Williams. 

As the Baker, Skylar Astin (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) more than holds his own opposite Foster. Their duet, "It Takes Two," demonstrates the pair's easy chemistry, while his second act scenes present a complex blend of regret and apprehension as their town is terrorized by an angry giant voiced by Whoopi Goldberg.

Hailey Kilgore, a Tony nominee for her Broadway debut in Once on This Island, lends Rapunzel a sonorously haunting refrain from her tower, while Gaten Matarazzo draws cheers from fans of Stranger Things with his portrayal of Jack. Sierra Boggess (The Phantom of the Opera) brings rueful tenderness to the part of Cinderella, who gets her Prince only to find he isn't worth it after all, and later sings a soulful rendition of "No One Is Alone" to ring out the evening on a high note. 

Best known for the original 1997 production of Side Show, which drew four Tony nominations, director-choreographer Robert Longbottom keeps the journey breezy by incorporating rudimentary dance moves and more, as in the duet between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Longbottom and his high-caliber cast might very easily have bitten off more than they could chew when they signed up for Into the Woods, but in a testament to their talent and professionalism, they have conjured a delightful rendition of the Sondheim classic. 

Venue: Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles
Cast: Skylar Astin, Sierra Boggess, Chris Carmack, Anthony Crivello, Sutton Foster, Edward Hibbert, Cheyenne Jackson, Hailey Kilgore, Gaten Matarazzo, Patina Miller, Rebecca Spencer, Shanice Williams, Tamyra Gray, Stella Kim, Daniel López, Gregory North, Edelyn Okano, Grace Yoo, Claire Adams, Richard Biglia, Devinn Harris, Rees James, Monica Ricketts, Karl Warden, voice of Whoopi Goldberg
Director-choreographer: Robert Longbottom,
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Set designer: Kevin Depinet
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Tom Ruzika
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen
Projection designer: Adam Fleming
Music director: Kevin Stites
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Presented by The Hollywood Bowl, L.A. Phil