Most of us have heard fairy tales growing up—the beautiful maiden, the handsome prince, a curious boy climbing a beanstalk, a precocious girl with a red cape, a mysterious witch, and so many more. Inevitably, the story concludes with “and they all lived happily every after.” But have you ever wondered, what does that mean? What does it actually look like? This is explored in Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece “Into the Woods,” currently playing at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
The casting was absolutely perfect, and the small ensemble helped keep the action tight and brisk…strongly recommend that you take a journey ‘Into the Woods’ with this cast—it is not to be missed.
The Broadway community lost Stephen Sondheim, one of the most definitive voices in musical theatre for over half a century, in late 2021 after a historic career. While many of his shows have made incredible cultural impact, “Into the Woods” may be his best known and most performed work. It first premiered on Broadway in 1987, where it went on to win three Tony awards. Following Sondheim’s passing, many of his works have been developed for revivals, with “Into the Woods” being the first, planned even before its creator’s death. It premiered as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center in early 2022. After it’s riotous success, it transferred to Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where it had multiple extensions due to it’s incredible popularity. Many cast members from the closing company have joined this tour.
This musical opens with some very familiar characters, as well as two new ones. There are three households. First, a sad maiden named Cinderella (Diane Phelan) living with her indifferent father (Josh Breckenridge), cruel stepmother (Nancy Opel), and vapid and vain stepsisters (Ta’Nika Gibson and Brooke Ishibashi). The second are new characters—a Baker (Jason Forbach) and the Baker’s Wife (Stephanie J. Block), who happen to live next door to a witch (Montego Glover). The third is Jack (Cole Thompson), his mother (Aymee Garcia), and his best friend and cow, Milky White (Kennedy Kanagawa). All three households have wishes they seek to fulfill. While Cinderella’s and Jack’s proceed along the lines of their traditional stories, helpfully told by the narrator (David Patrick Kelly), the Baker and his wife seek to have a child after they are told by their neighbor, the Witch, that they have been cursed by her after the Baker’s father stole from her garden when his mother was pregnant. As punishment, the Witch laid this curse and also took the Baker’s sister as her own daughter, Rapunzel (Alysia Velez). The Witch tells them if they can collect four items for her—the cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold—she will lift the curse. In the pursuit of these, they encounter other familiar fairy tale characters like Little Red (Katy Geraghty), two handsome princes (Gavin Creel and Andy Karl), as well as a mysterious man that seems intent on helping the Baker. The first act shows the stories of these characters play out, but it is Act 2 that takes this show in a new direction, because it shows what happens AFTER the “happily ever after.”
This production was the perfect combination of honoring the source material, but bringing a freshness that engages both new viewers and superfans alike. The casting was absolutely perfect, and the small ensemble helped keep the action tight and brisk in what can be a very long show. The audience was reminded about the unpredictability of live theatre when we were informed that the Baker, usually played by Sebastian Arcelus (also the real-life husband of Baker’s Wife Stephanie J. Block) was out of the show for an injury, with Jason Forbach stepping in for him. Forbach’s role as Rapunzel’s Prince was covered (for the first weekend performances) by Broadway star and native Marylander, Andy Karl, who also performed the character on Broadway.
Very wisely, the production team made the decision to keep the set and costumes for this production relatively simple. While both of these were impressive, especially the tree and beanstalks that could extend and retract from the stage, it allowed the primary focus to be on the story and the amazing performers bringing them to life. The choice to have the incredible, live orchestra onstage with the action also was well-made, making the music seem organic to the telling of the story, while enriching the action.
I can’t imagine that it is easy to step into a leading role on opening night as an understudy, but now Jason Forbach as done it twice. Not only did he take the stage as the Baker at the Kennedy Center premiere, his bio details that he did the same thing for opening night on Broadway. Without notification from the program, this reviewer never would have believed that he did not play this part every night. He was absolutely phenomenal—every beat, whether comedic or dramatic, was handled with a depth and complexity that was astonishing. He made me laugh out loud and shed a tear with a truly superb performance. His vocals and acting were impeccable. It was also a testament to the professionalism and talent of this cast that he was able to move into this role so seemingly effortlessly and have these “moments in the woods” with the rest of the cast. His standout moments were in “It Takes Two” and his heart wrenching performance of “No More.”
It’s almost impossible to be a modern musical theatre fan and not be familiar with the phenomenal Stephanie J. Block. Just a few career highlights are Liza Minelli in “The Boy From Oz,” Elphaba in “Wicked,” Judy in “9 to 5,” Trina in “Falsettos” and, of course, her Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning turn as Cher in “The Cher Show.” She replaced Sara Bareilles in this production on Broadway, to great acclaim. Block brought her powerhouse vocals and her bright comedic timing to this performance, sparkling in her songs with Cinderella and an iconic performance of “Moments in the Woods.”
While everyone is this cast was incredible, I would have to say my favorites were the two princes. Gavin Creel is sublime as Cinderella’s prince and the Big Bad Wolf. It’s obvious that Creel is having an absolute blast portraying these characters and really leans into the comedic aspects of both. Creel has shown a penchant for portraying dynamic characters over his career, and much like his turn as the lothario Steven Kodaly in the excellent Broadway revival of “She Loves Me,” he makes a potentially unlikable romantic lead utterly irresistible here. He turns this prince into a charming himbo—running through his princely life completely oblivious to the havoc he wreaks in others’ as his simply seeks his bliss. Karl is similarly delightful as his equally reckless and hilarious brother, with the two of them striking some of the funniest moments of the show. “Agony” and its reprise are an absolute joy to experience.
Montego Glover also impresses as the Witch. Perhaps the most complicated aspect of this role is that you take a character that initially starts out seemingly two dimensionally villainous, which complexifies as you learn more about her motivations, thoughts and feelings. Glovers’ voice soars in “Last Midnight” as well as breaks your heart in “Stay with Me”.
This review would be pages long if I called out each individual performance and its excellence. This cast is truly a marvel. Newcomer Thompson is able to make Jack loveable, despite being a bit thick. Phelan is charming and lovely as the iconic princess. Geraghty is a delight, deftly playing the complex sides of Little Red and her voice tinkles like melodic bells. Garcia is able to hit both comedic and serious notes as Jack’s long suffering mother. Both stepsisters and stepmother are perfect, as well as DC actor and Resident Company Member of Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, Felicia Curry, who plays multiple, important roles like Cinderella’s mother, Red’s Granny, as well as an integral role in Act 2. I also want to give specific accolades to Kennedy Kanagawa who does puppetry for both Milky White and other characters. It can be very difficult to be onstage as a puppeteer but still imbue a performance with personality when the rest of the actors are not puppets. Kanagawa does an exemplary job with these characters and displays a great talent alongside these titans of the industry. This reviewer is very interested to see how this career develops.
If you have no previous knowledge of this show or you are a die-hard fan, I strongly recommend that you take a journey “Into the Woods” with this cast—it is not to be missed. We at the Maryland Theatre Guide wish Sebastian Arcelus a speedy recovery.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for audiences 13+.
“Into the Woods” runs through March 19, 2023 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 467-4600. Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324 or go online. Masks are optional.
$35 Rush tickets will be available for every performance beginning each performance day at 5:00 pm at the Kennedy Center Box Office, except matinee performances when Rush tickets will go on-sale at noon. Tickets are subject to availability and have no guaranteed location. Two tickets max per person. Void if resold. A limited number of $35 Mobile Rush tickets will be available for every performance on TodayTix. See TodayTix for details.