The following review of “Into the Woods” at the Hollywood Bowl is based on the July 26th performance of the musical.
Since Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s darkly comedic “Into the Woods” debuted on Broadway in 1987, the world has seen countless productions of the popular musical. And while the 2014 film adaptation brought together a collection of Hollywood powerhouses, the Hollywood Bowl’s fully realized annual musical (last year it was “Annie”), which runs through only July 28th, takes several all-stars of the stage and puts them together to create a spectacular true-to-form display of “Into the Woods.” Southern California residents might remember the last big-budget production of the show two years ago at the Ahmanson Theatre, which gave it an interesting folksy slant, but this one leaves a greater impression.
It is not only the most star-studded version of “Into the Woods” that has ever been staged, it might be the pinnacle of musicals. The tone of the weekend run was impacted by the highly successful opening night performance in which the nearly 18,000 attendees at the Bowl, many of whom have flown in from other states, geeked out over the once-in-a-lifetime collaboration among Broadway’s headliners and TV stars.
Robert Longbottom’s vision as director and choreographer proves seamless, as does Kevin Stites’ conducting, with crystal clear sounds by his orchestra ringing up the steep incline of the venue (a credit to sound designer Philip G. Allen). In addition, Kevin Depinet’s scenic design, which includes an exquisitely patterned blue crescent in front of an ominous moon, effectively sets the mood; Tom Ruzika’s lighting gorgeously illuminates the performers, who are dressed in Ann Hould-Ward’s fairytale costumes; and Adam Flemming’s projections add more magic to the setting (e.g., the semicircle proscenium becomes a clock face and later becomes cracked when the Giant appears). That being said, there was one sound/video-projection gaffe on the night of July 26th, involving Cinderella’s deceased mother (Tamyra Gray) whose lips and words were out of sync.
Despite this minor issue, the occasion enfolds a sea of Sondheim devotees who watch with bated breath a plot they know by heart: the Baker and his wife, in their efforts to overturn the Witch’s curse on their reproductive loins, enter a world of familiar fantasy to cull a list of “ingredients” belonging to four fabled characters: Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. But like the other individuals who enter the woods for their own reasons, the Baker and his Wife soon discover that happiness isn’t necessarily something to be sought outside of oneself.
Skylar Astin of “Pitch Perfect” fame and Sutton Foster, star of an astounding 11 Broadway shows, play the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, respectively. Astin fills the Baker’s shoes with much determination and Foster is wonderfully pleasant in how humble, reflective, and humorous she is, as with “Maybe They’re Magic” and “Moments in the Woods.” Although they have a tendency to be naïve, the Baker and his Wife are a charming duo, which is of course helped by the skill level of Astin and Foster who share an entertaining banter and are sweet together during “It Takes Two.”
Sierra Boggess, who reinvented the role of Christine Daaé in “The Phantom of the Opera,” demonstrates she can not only be an excellent Ariel (as she was in her Broadway debut), but an iridescent Cinderella who can talk to birds. Boggess’ interpretation of “On the Steps of the Palace,” all the while communicating her character’s dilemma to stay with Cheyenne Jackson’s Prince or not, serves as a masterclass on singing, ending with a flourish. Jackson, who is currently starring in FX’s “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” is a top-three performer in the production as not only Cinderella’s Prince, but the dastardly Wolf, who has no regard for what he devours. But it is his “raised to be charming, not sincere” Prince that audiences will remember Jackson for, as he hilariously commiserates with a peer in Chris Carmack’s Prince (who has eyes for Hailey Kilgore’s Rapunzel) about the “Agony” of romantic relationships, and earns scores of laughter in how he seduces Foster’s “peasant” persona.
Moreover, Shanice Williams energetically depicts the sprightly and quick-to-mature Little Red Riding Hood, who is essentially undeterred by the Wolf’s villainy. Impressing with another underrated performance is fan-favorite Gaten Matarazzo as the red-haired Jack. Already 16, Matarazzo is just as endearing as a young adult (“I’m a man now”) since growing up during the internationally renowned “Stranger Things.” He is enjoyable in his scenes with his character’s overprotective mother (Rebecca Spencer), is touching in how he interacts with his only friend, a cow, and exhibits terrific range and projection in his voice with a passionate rendition of “Giants in the Sky.”
Ultimately, what sets the story arc in motion, though, is an act of maleficence by an exacting Witch. Tony Award-winner Patina Miller is the incredible antagonist who leads the way with a spectacularly searing performance. Whether she’s making demands to the Baker and his Wife (over a percussive synth), or is being an abusive guardian to Rapunzel, Miller has a commanding presence that oozes a charismatic confidence to match the Witch’s wicked words. There’s a resolute belief conveyed in each lyric, expressed through Miller’s resounding higher register that makes her Witch extra compelling. Examples include “Lament” and “Last Midnight,” the latter of which culminates with a shriek that sends a forceful pulse through the audience.
Rounding out the principals are Edward Hibbert as the distinguished Narrator who suddenly finds himself in the very story he’s telling; Anthony Crivello as the riddle-speaking Mysterious Man who poignantly sings “No More” with Astin’s Baker; and Whoopi Goldberg as the voice of the towering Giant whose gargantuan shadow appears in the midst of California earthquake-reminiscent rumblings.
Overall, the historic Hollywood Bowl venue and a stellar cast have made for a memorable staging of “Into the Woods” that boasts just as much substance as it does spectacle. Whenever there is this much hype surrounding a project, letdowns are usually expected. However, in this case, the established performers have shown why they have the reputations they do, rising to the significance of the moment, to become the grand sum of their parts and reach dizzyingly delightful heights. It is an “Ever After” ode to Stephen Sondheim and the ardent supporters of musical theatre.
Rating: 4.75 stars (out of 5)
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