A marvelous, minimalist ‘Into the Woods’ puts focus on Sondheim’s music

The human-scale simplicity serves the story in beautifully sung and deeply felt touring production.

SHARE A marvelous, minimalist ‘Into the Woods’ puts focus on Sondheim’s music
The Wolf (Gavin Creel) sizes up Little Red Riding Hood (Katy Geraghty) in “Into the Woods.”

The Wolf (Gavin Creel) sizes up Little Red Riding Hood (Katy Geraghty) in “Into the Woods.”

Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Sometimes, less is more.

That saying applies perfectly to this simplified, beautifully sung and deeply felt production of “Into the Woods,” which began last May as a semi-staged concert with a starry cast, part of the tidal wave of affection for Stephen Sondheim’s work following his death in late 2021.

It was so well-received that it transferred intact to Broadway, where it became a hit for its limited engagement, which ended in January.

Now on a limited tour with several members of the Broadway cast and a couple of legit stage stars in Tony winners Stephanie J. Block (currently out requiring vocal rest, possibly to return for the second week of Chicago performances) and Gavin Creel, the production quite literally places Sondheim’s music center stage. The orchestra appears just behind the performers, and the forest setting is depicted with partial, spare, tree trunks above them, hanging from the flies. The orchestra’s presence reduces the playing space, placing even further emphasis on the performers, the music, the lyrics, as opposed to production values.

‘Into the Woods’

into the wood review

When: Through May 7

Where: James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St.

Tickets: $35-$140

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

“Into the Woods” is one of the more flexible major musicals out there. It’s so well-structured, lyrically clever, and thematically rich that it really works just as well performed grandly or plainly or in between.

A mash-up of fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella, the show exists in an imaginative storyland anyway. Such yarns have been simply read aloud as bedtime stories exponentially more times than they’ve been produced as big-budget spectacles.

The simplicity here brings major benefits. The differences between Act I — where the characters wish and seek and attain — and Act II — where the characters, having gotten what they wished for, aren’t sure it’s what they wanted after all — don’t feel as jarring as they can with images of destruction taking over the show. The disappointments, the compromises, the recognition of mortality — these all seem a natural extension of the stories rather than a departure. It all feels extremely … human-scaled.

(L to R) Sebastian Arcelus and David Patrick Kelly in “Into the Woods.”Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

(L to R) Sebastian Arcelus and David Patrick Kelly in “Into the Woods.”

Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

In fact, Sebastian Arcelus’ Baker (an invented protagonist in James Lapine’s book) is far and away the most convincing, compelling portrayal I’ve seen. A central but tricky character, the Baker has always been an odd combination of passivity and sexist bossiness, needing to be egged on by his practical, baby-desiring Wife (a strong Ximone Rose filling in for Block). In Arcelus’ take, the Baker is a genuine everyman, pretty much befuddled, weak and operating on cultural expectations he has never really thought about. When his wife has “a moment” with the glamorous Prince (Creel), we certainly can’t blame her. Too many actors before him have begged the audience to like this guy, but not here, and perhaps for the first time I fully comprehend him.

There are other outstanding performances. Creel, who in addition to the Prince plays the grandma-eating Wolf, is one of those performers whose purposeful gestures and comic timing make you follow him wherever he goes. And even though he’s properly exaggerated, he too brings his Prince down to earthly size at just the right moment, when he confesses: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

The wonderful twist is that he says it with the greatest sincerity.

As Jack, of beanstalk fame, Cole Thompson beautifully captures a purity of emotion, from the wonder of “Giants in the Sky” to absorbing the lessons of loss in Act II. And Katy Geraghty, as the not-very-innocent Little Red Riding Hood, delivers a level of sass that it’s hard to imagine topping. Another understudy, Ellie Fishman, plays Cinderella with a genuinely genial sense of humility. And Montego Glover, a bit of an understated Witch for much of the show, certainly delivers a masterful crescendo with her version of “Last Midnight.”

When the show does require special effects, James Ortiz’s minimalist puppetry fills in, providing oversized wiry shoes to depict the giant stomping around in the second act, as well as a great cow (manned by Kennedy Kanagawa) and amusingly chatty birds, a bit of a poke at the Disney versions of these tales.

Montego Glover as The Witch in “Into the Woods.” Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Montego Glover as The Witch in “Into the Woods.”

Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

It’s shocking, if not surprising, how current “Into the Woods,” which was first produced in 1987, manages to feel in each new era. If anything, it only gets more meaningful with time.

Understanding the notion of stories as an underlying shared consciousness, this version contributes to the very successful case for this show as among the best of Sondheim’s masterpieces.

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