Review: The Tony-nominated ‘Into the Woods’ revival — maybe the best in my lifetime — lands in L.A.

Actors in fairy tale attire link hands amid a backdrop of tree trunks.
Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus as the Baker and Baker’s Wife in the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerma)
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What is the secret of Lear deBessonet’s Broadway revival of “Into the Woods”? The Tony-nominated production, at the final stop of its national tour, cast a euphoric spell at the Ahmanson Theatre, where it opened on Thursday and plays through July 30.

It’s not easy to figure out Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dauntingly ambitious 1987 musical in performance. As bewitching as it is unwieldy, the show gathers Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood and beanstalk-shimmying Jack, along with other storybook figures known and invented, for a psychoanalytic journey into the deepest adult fears of abandonment, betrayal and loss.

But it’s not the thematic seriousness or deconstructive daring that creates problems. It’s the scale of the undertaking. Lapine’s book is marvelously inventive, full of elbow-nudging drollery and melancholy rumination. But the operatic plot is a skein that sometimes entangles its colorful characters and other times leaves them panting with exhaustion.


DeBessonet succeeds through simplicity. The production, which began at New York City Center Encores! last year, was originally conceived as a concert staging. These limitations have guided the director to concentrate on what is essential even after the show moved to Broadway. (The divine 2019 Hollywood Bowl production of “Into the Woods” similarly benefited from restrictive circumstances.)

Actors in magenta and canary yellow cutaways sing on stage.
Jason Forbach, left, and Gavin Creel as the conceited princes of “Into The Woods.”
(Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Props and sets are minimal on a set that keeps the orchestra in view on the Ahmanson stage. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is all that’s required to shift the scenic mood. The show’s emotional weather turns as the background hue changes from one ambiguously cheerful pastel to another.

Lorin Latarro’s choreography finds the Goldilocks quotient to keep the action gracefully flowing without ever tipping into extravagance. The dancing is wholly absorbed in the storytelling.

Sondheim’s score, never out of consciousness, is given pride of place. But the spotlight is reserved for the performers, whose sharp characterizations are delivered in the theatrical equivalent of Technicolor.

The Broadway revival was originally led by Sara Bareilles, who played the Baker’s Wife. But top-tier talent cycled in and out during the New York run. By the time I saw the production in December, there had been quite a number of changes. But the company still had the fresh vitality of an opening night cast.


Credit for this achievement goes to deBessonet. Her casting instincts are unimpeachable, but even more impressive is her detailed directorial plan that has made it possible for so many actors to perform as though the production were designed expressly for them.

The excellent touring company includes many of the same performers — Stephanie J. Block as the Baker’s Wife, Katy Geraghty as Little Red Ridinghood and Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf — who delighted me in New York. I’m happy to report that they’re even better in Los Angeles.

Block, who won a Tony for out-Cher-ing Cher in “The Cher Show,” is one of the leading musical theater actors of her generation. She’s performing here opposite her husband, Sebastian Arcelus, who plays the Baker (the role that earned Brian d’Arcy James a Tony nomination in the revival). The banter may not be as snappishly smart now that the Baker and his Wife are portrayed by a real-life married couple, but the marital relationship has more gravity.

Broadway stars Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus have been married for 15 years and play a married couple onstage in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods.’ The national tour arrives in L.A. this week.

June 26, 2023

Something’s lost, but something profound is gained. This happens to be one of the key morals in a musical that debunks the notion of happily-ever-after endings. In Act 1, the characters fiendishly pursue their various wishes. In Act 2, these characters discover that fulfilled wishes can neither stop time nor future strife.

“Life was so steady, and now this! When are things going to return to normal?” Cinderella’s Stepmother (Nancy Opel, stylishly adopting the character’s peevish hauteur) complains after a giant starts rampaging through the kingdom. She didn’t expect her mousy stepdaughter to marry so well, but mother dear has grown accustomed to the perks of the palace.

Life has a way, however, of tearing the rug out from under the comfortably settled. Death is always on the other side of the door. Inspired by the darkness in Grimm’s fairy tales, “Into the Woods” broods on forbidding realities.


Little Red Ridinghood is defiantly bratty. She gorges greedily on the baked goods that she’s supposed to be bringing to grandmother’s house. Creel as the Wolf accosts her on her way as though she were a rotisserie chicken he’d like to bed. But anyone bold enough to threaten her had better be prepared for a violent struggle.

Actors in fairy tale attire stare upward.
Stephanie J. Block, left, and Sebastian Arcelus as the Baker and his wife, and Katy Geraghty as Little Red Ridinghood.
(Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Cinderella (Diane Phelan) is the most docile of the characters. A chatty flock of birds, recognizing her basic goodness, keeps her informed and readily does her bidding. Phelan is so mild that she gets lost in the fairy tale shuffle. But as Cinderella finds her spine, her performance grows more assured. When the Prince turns out to be a narcissistic philanderer, Cinderella wastes no time in trading her dream marriage for a more modest domestic arrangement with people who genuinely appreciate her. Phelan locates the quiet truth in this last reversal of fortunes.

Creel, infusing every line reading with delectable originality, plays the Prince as a preening fop who excuses his behavior by explaining to Cinderella late in the musical that he’s meant to be charming, not sincere. One of the musical highlights is when Creel and Jason Forbach, who plays Rapunzel’s Prince, sing “Agony” — an anthem for two conceited royals who never had to grow up and never will that is such ecstatic fun it’s performed a second time, to the audience’s delight.

The Broadway revival of ‘Into the Woods’ and the new off-Broadway revival of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ bring new life to challenging Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Jan. 5, 2023

It’s clear we’re out of the realm of children’s tales when the Baker’s Wife runs into Cinderella’s Prince in the woods and succumbs to his opportunistic seduction. Block and Creel perform the scene to musical comedy perfection. The scampering journey from “Any Moment,” sung by both characters in the heat of wayward desire, to “Moments in the Woods,” sung by the Baker’s Wife in the reflective aftermath of adultery, offers a microcosm of Sondheim’s agile genius.

So often in musical theater today, showstoppers seem shoehorned into the story. Sondheim reminds us of what’s possible when the high points of a score are tethered to the high points in a libretto.


Before the Baker’s Wife makes her exit, Block is given a parting gift of piercing lyrical meditations. Her magnificent singing draws out all the colors in the musical’s kaleidoscope of mixed emotions.

Montego Glover as the Witch is similarly transcendent when it matters most. As Rapunzel’s overprotective guardian, she moves from the maternal longing of “Stay With Me” to the grief of “Witch’s Lament” to the impatient fury of “Last Midnight,” never letting her formidable virtuosity detach from the dramatic source of her character’s song.

Allow me to single out a few others in the large and praiseworthy cast. David Patrick Kelly, as the Narrator and Mysterious Man, establishes just the right ironic tone for the narrative high jinks. As Rapunzel, Alysia Velez creates from her tree house a canopy of sound that is the operatic equivalent of birdsong.

Giant-killing Jack is not the brightest bulb, but Cole Thompson’s portrayal is entertainingly clever and gloriously sung. Aymee Garcia, who plays Jack’s worried mother, exercises welcome comic restraint. And all hail Kennedy Kanagawa, the puppeteer of Milky White, Jack’s beloved cow, a creature that is as expressive as any human cast member.

The last three songs of the show — “No More,” “No One Is Alone” and the “Children Will Listen” finale — bring the musical’s tenderhearted melancholy to a full boil. Sondheim’s score (under the music supervision of Rob Berman and the music direction of conductor John Bell) is the true star of deBessonet’s ingenious company.

The blissful memory of Pasadena Playhouse’s Sondheim Celebration is still fresh, but no one should pass up the chance to see possibly the best production of “Into the Woods” in my lifetime.


'Into the Woods'

Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Through July 30. Check website for dates.
Tickets: $40-$155