I like a big build-up, in keeping with the spirit of Sondheim and his fifteen-minute Prologue that kicks off Into the Woods, but just in case you’re the type of reader who prefers to get the gist and be on your way, here you go.
Broadway in Chicago’s Into the Woods is a must-see, magical musical event. If you love Sondheim–and you should love Sondheim–and you love great music, storytelling, and performances, put on your red cape and golden slipper, fill your basket with delicious baked goods for your grandmother (but mostly you), and make your way into the woods and over to the Nederlander theater.
Good? OK, here we go…
Once upon a time,
In a far-off kingdom,
More than anything,
More than the moon,
So begins the much-loved Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine fairy tale musical masterpiece, Into the Woods, a brilliantly interwoven retelling of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and an original story, The Baker and his Wife.
The way is clear, the light is good, I have no fear nor no one should.
They sing together as the familiar figures from our collective bedtime stories walk or, in the case of Little Red Riding Hood, skip with great purpose off on their journey into the woods. They are happy and excited and maybe a little nervous.
No need to be afraid there, there’s something in the glade there.
And we know how this will end. Of course, there are some scary moments–an evil Wolf or Witch, or maybe an angry giant or two–but with a bit of help from some cute woodland creatures and a dashing love interest, not to mention some courage and persistence, every fairy tale works out in the end, right?
But this one’s not like the others, which makes it brilliant. That and the fact that it was written by the greatest lyricist in the history of musicals.
With no fewer than a dozen masterpieces and decades of critical praise, including a New York Times obituary that called him “the most important figure in American Musical Theater of the last half-century,” my pointing out Stephen Sondheim wrote great lyrics is a bit like saying Miles Davis played a great trumpet. All of this is already known. Still, why resist? Shouldn’t we revel, maybe just a little? The review can only benefit from his masterful wordplay.
One quick example of pure Sondheim from the Prologue, when Jack’s mother implores him to go into the woods to sell the cow to get the money…
There are bugs on her dugs.
There are flies in her eyes.
There’s a lump on her rump
Big enough to be a hump-
We’ve no time to sit and dither,
While her wither’s wither with her-
And no one keeps a cow for a friend!
Forgive me, but did you catch the triple homonym? “While her wither’s wither with her.” Genius.
And the story? Also, genius. It’s a fairy tale Rorschach test. To see Sondheim and Lapine’s cryptic fairy tale for what it is is to better understand life. We go off ‘into the woods’ in search of something, and maybe we find it, and maybe we find something else. Or maybe not. And we learn a few lessons on the way, and maybe we don’t, and maybe that makes things better. Or maybe not. And what happens along the way..? Well, that’s the story.
So when the much-loved musical about a journey gone awry almost actually did go awry, it was pretty extraordinary.
A brief digression (I promise). Musical theater is essential. Why? Because (1) it is beautiful and (2) it possesses the ability to move us as no other art form can. Read me a line, and I may tear up. Sing me the same line, and I’m sobbing. And unlike film, there are no second chances if something goes wrong. It’s all there, on stage, in the spotlight, good or bad, a moment in the woods, for the audience to see.
“And to get what you wish, only just for a moment–These are dangerous woods!”
So when we sat down in row N and opened our programs to find the note that understudy Ximone Rose would be going on for the Tony Award winner Stephanie Block, there was a momentary cause for concern. The Baker’s Wife is a huge role, and seeing Stephanie Block alone would have been worth the price of the ticket. Still, with an incredible cast of Broadway stars like Montego Glover (the Witch), Sebastian Arcelus (Baker), and Gavin Creel (Cinderalla’s Prince and the Wolf), the show would almost certainly still be more than worth it.
And you never know? Maybe Ximone Rose’s big break would be a good story. (Quick spoiler alert: It was better than good)
So off we went, into the woods. But when the show was paused a third of the way through the first act to announce that Ellie Fishman, formerly Cinderella’s evil sister, would fill in for Cinderella for the rest of the show, there was another cause for concern.
What was happening?
Another brief digression. We never really know what’s happening backstage. Maybe it’s nothing. Just a little Noises Off theater drama. Or something more serious, like the first signs of a pandemic infecting the cast like Station Eleven. Who knows?
But here’s what I do know. From the moment the lights back came up and Ellie Fishman ran on stage as the new Cinderella, the rest of the night was a study in everything that makes musical theater magical.
“Cinderella, how are you?” asked the Narrator, brilliantly played by David Patrick Kelly, resetting the moment. And without missing a beat, she ad-libbed… “A little out of breath!”
Not Sondheim, but also genius.
Here’s the thing. Like many of you, I have seen Into the Woods before. The musical opened in 1987, and though it’s still relevant, maybe now more than ever, it’s no spring chicken. I’ve seen this musical in darkened theaters and on both the big and little screen. I’ve watched the Disney version more than 50 times (OK, probably more like 15) with my daughter. Sometimes we sing the soundtrack together in the car. We can both do the Vegetable Rap, though only she can pull off Your Fault (too fast for me). So, yes, I would have liked to have seen the full starting lineup, but I’ve never seen Into the Woods with two Cinderellas before. No one has. And I promise you nothing in the world could have made me root harder for the show than when I watched Fishman run on stage and crush her first line, “A little out of breath!”
Me too. From that point on, I was hooked.
And, from what I could tell, so was the cast and everyone else.
That’s what woods are for:
For those moments in the woods.
Though he was almost certainly missing Stephanie Block, his on-stage and real-life wife, Sebastian Arcelus gave a poignant performance. Arcelus was good in the traditional fairy tale first act but exceptional in the tragedy-laden second act when the plot and performance’s twists and turns called for greater depth.
Once again, the Baker can tell Jack, “You are not alone,” and I might get a little teary. But when Arcelus sings it… well, you get it.
Gavin Creel was a creepy Wolf and charming Prince Charming, alongside his on-stage brother, Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Jason Forbach. Creel and Forbach were fantastic and hilarious together in their Agony.
Katy Geraghty and Cole Thompson also gave extraordinary performances in their roles as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack. With her high-octane Red, Geraghty wrung every bit of comic possibility out of her role, stopping the show at points with delivery so funny and clever that the audience needed time to finish laughing. Thompson more than lived up to the best possible version of the description given by Jack’s Mother (Aymee Garcia) of the boy as a “sunny, though occasionally vague.” Thompson’s Jack was an always lovely, often brave, forever loyal, utterly sincere, harp-stealing, giant-slaying big, good kid.
And if there’s such a thing as a show-stealing cow, Milky White, puppeteered by Kennedy Kanagawa, was just that.
Were it not for the extraordinary circumstances, this would be the part when I might write about how Into the Woods is basically an ensemble show. Though each star has their moment in the woods, many of the best moments happen when they sing together on stage. While still true, this night belonged to three extraordinary performers who rose to the occasion: one expected, two called on, all incredible.
First, the expected. Broadway star Montego Glover’s high-energy, physical, force-of-nature performance as the Witch was spellbinding. She was everywhere. Waving her staff-like wand, Glover owned the stage. And, though it’s always a show stopper, I’m still thinking about the something extra she put into Last Midnight.
As for the unexpected, maybe it was just another day at the office for Ximone Rose and Ellie Fishman. After all, they’re both professionals. But that’s not what it looked like from row N. From where I sat, it looked like two stellar performers got a great big chance to do something incredible, and they both rose to meet the moment. At the very least, running on stage in a starring role without much (any) notice is brave, but Fishman’s performance as Cinderella was also beautiful. And Ximone Rose’s as the Baker’s Wife was every bit as impressive. The Baker’s Wife is the glue that holds many of the show’s key elements together, and Rose’s performance did all of this and more. Her Moments in the Woods was amazing, one of the best and most meaningful songs in the second act.
Oh, if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one!
But if life were only moments
Then you’d never know you had one
On this night, for an unexpectedly beautiful and inspired moment, Ellie Fischman was the perfect Cinderella, and Ximone Rose was the perfect Baker’s Wife.
And together, with their brilliant cast, they led Into the Woods out of the woods.
Into the Woods plays at the James M. Nederlander Theater at 24 West Randolph St., Chicago, until May 7. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.