The stars aligned, literally and metaphorically, at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday in a bewitching presentation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical “Into the Woods.”
Given a boost by Rob Marshall’s 2014 movie version, “Into the Woods” has been regularly revived in recent years. This Hollywood Bowl staging, cannily directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, is one of the best I’ve seen.
The production featured a cast of dab theatrical hands who colorfully brought to life the parade of classic fairy tale characters, whose “happily ever after” stories are reassembled only to be disassembled in a deconstruction that has become a modern musical landmark. Originally produced by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986, the show introduces ambivalence, uncertainty and disillusionment — the signature Sondheim states of mind — into a storybook world built for grownups.
“Into the Woods” teaches that getting your wish isn’t necessarily a net positive. The answer to your dreams usually brings more questions. But my wish is that this production could have run longer than three performances. I almost feel guilty for being one of the lucky ones to have caught what deserves to become a legendary Los Angeles memory.
My expectations for musicals at the Hollywood Bowl are usually held in check because of the abbreviated rehearsal period and performance schedule. It’s hard to get a show as unwieldy as this one into working order under normal conditions. The cast is large, the book is long and the score is notoriously difficult to sing. “Into the Woods” wasn’t intended for dabblers.
But Longbottom selected his ensemble shrewdly. A lyric from “I Know Things Now” sung by Little Red Riding Hood (a spry and tangy Shanice Williams) arrives at the epiphany that “nice is different than good.” Longbottom recognized that famous is different from great.
His cast wasn’t full of TV stars testing their theatrical mettle. Even those who have gone on to have success on the small screen have kept their stage instincts sharply honed.
Patina Miller, who played the Witch as well as anyone before her, is known these days as one of the stars of CBS’s “Madam Secretary.” But the actress who made a winning Broadway debut in the musical “Sister Act” and won a Tony for her performance in the 2013 revival of “Pippin” delivered her tricky powerhouse numbers (“Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight”) with range and tonal assurance I’ve rarely seen equaled.
Transforming from crone to mermaid-like diva with help from the ingenuity of costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, Miller was sparkling in the way she blended the creepy with the comic. Hould-Ward was just as helpful in allowing the twice-cast Cheyenne Jackson to go from extracting every hairy laugh as the predatory Wolf in hot pursuit of Little Red Riding Hood to seducing every cos-playing princess in the audience as Cinderella’s unabashedly egotistical yet still irresistible Prince.
Jackson and Chris Carmack, who made a dashingly hammy impression as Rapunzel’s Prince, delighted
in their frolicsome rendition of “Agony.” This cheeky wail of two royal bachelors unaccustomed to any delay in their romantic satisfaction, returned throughout the show like a jaunty breeze.
Whether grimy from housework or gleaming in a ball gown and glass slippers, Sierra Boggess’ Cinderella was enchanting. If a few of the character’s poignant moments in the second half weren’t optimized, Boggess impressed with her crystalline singing and gameness for comedy. Cinderella’s innocent colloquies with her all-knowing birds never failed to crack me up. (The special effects, when not executed through lighting and projections, were serviced by toy-like objects that cheerfully flaunted their status as props.)
Skylar Astin as the Baker and two-time Tony-winner Sutton Foster as the Baker’s Wife created the most layered characterizations as the childless couple whose desire to lift the spell of the witch next door sends them into the woods where they attempt to rewrite their fate. Lapine introduced this portrait of a modern marriage into a traditional fairy tale setting to explore the emotional fallout of moral compromises.
Funny when feisty, the radiantly talented Foster could turn touching on a dime. Astin, an alumnus of CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” was the biggest discovery of the night. His singing had a way of lucidly highlighting the complexity that makes Sondheim Sondheim.
The orchestra, conducted by musical director Kevin Stites, must have inspired the singers, who were excellent across the board. Lines from the score that I’ve heard countless times before took on new meaning. When Cinderella intones in “No One Is Alone, Part 2,” “Hard to see the light now” and the Baker responds, “Just don’t let it go,” I heard not only a message in the merriment but advice that we could all use right now.
Sondheim’s lyrics can always be counted on for tickling cleverness, but performers sometimes gild the lily with silly mugging. Not here. Beanstalk-climbing Jack (Gaten Matarazzo), a poor boy no brighter than his beloved cow, Milky-White, and his clucking Mother (Rebecca Spencer) renewed their domestic antics with genuine feeling.
Edward Hibbert bided his time as the fussy Narrator before hilariously breaking his reserve. Tony-winner Anthony Crivello lent the Mysterious Man wacky enigma. And Hailey Kilgore’s Rapunzel, who sang like an operatic bird, swung her cascade of corn-silk hair with an insouciant difference.
As the voice of the Giant, Whoopi Goldberg had me doubled over in laughter when she swallowed an expletive as the other characters teamed up to save themselves from her big-footed fury. Like I’ve been saying, it was a special night.