Regional Reviews: Chicago
Into the Woods
For a whirlwind, two-week run, Broadway in Chicago brings the New York City Center Encores! touring production of Into the the Woods to the Nederlander Theatre. Although the rather lean staging of this version of the Lear deBessonet-directed production has a few shortcomings and odd choices, the performances are well beyond competent for capturing the spirit of Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics and James Lapine's book, and the overall soul of the production is charming.
With the orchestra positioned on stage, David Rockwell's scenic design is working with some daunting space constraints. For the most part, the set is up to the challenge. For the opening, each of the three dwellings is rendered in a miniature version floating above the characters' heads, with Cinderella's family's mansion stage right, the Baker's cottage center, and Jack's house stage left.
To represent the woods themselves, Rockwell flies in rather industrial-looking cylinders of different heights, with irregular cut-outs that permit light to pass through. The suggestion of the forest is clever and practical, but without much depth to the stage (or room to maneuver), there's less of characters hiding, eavesdropping, and crossing paths with one another than is the case in some productions, which contributes to some uneven character development and some barriers to the characters forming bonds even as they navigate their individual threads of the story.
The scenic design doesn't get quite as much help from Tyler Micoleau's lighting design as it might have. Most of the show is fairly brightly lit with a great deal of peach, lemon, and other pastels. There are occasional blues and purples to lend the minimalist forest some murk, but the set and lighting together don't quite conjure up a series of midnights, and there is the occasional cue that brightens the stage so much, I almost thought the house lights had come up unexpectedly.
Andrea Hood's costumes feature a number of triumphs. The two princes (as well as the wolf) are perfection in their swallowtail coats, busily patterned waistcoats, and breeches. Red Ridinghood's rose-patterned dress is childlike and adorable, yet it has a bit of rockabilly flair that Hood turns up the dial on when Red receives her Cape 2.0 by adding some red leather fingerless gloves with fur cuffs. Similarly, Cinderella's ball gown is lovely in its dip-dyed oranges and yellows.
And yet, the decision to give the stepsisters a Caribbean flair reads as odd, particularly as the colors and fabrics don't jibe with those of Cinderella's stepmother or her father, and on a similar note, both the style and color of Rapunzel's costume isolate the character rather than visually pairing her with her prince. The decision to use an upper-face mask and wig for the Witch before her transformation is sensible and read well from the audience, but the purple gloves with their talons don't seem to fit well and distract from the performer's very physical style.
One element of the design is masterful, however. The puppet design by James Ortiz is wonderful, from Cinderella's birds to the clever and attractive design for the giant's shoes. But the triumph is Milky White. Never has a highly stylized cow puppet so thoroughly won over a packed theater, and kudos to Kennedy Kanagawa and Josh Breckenridge, not just for their grace and skill with the creation of the puppets, but also for the performances they bring. Each is critical to the show's pacing, pathos and humor, and each is very much up to the challenge.
In the main cast, Montego Glover puts her own indelible stamp on the Witch. There is a compelling darkness to the choices Glover makes, and it's interesting that even in humorous moments like the Witch's Rap, she never quite lets the audience off the hook by letting things get truly light. This adds real anguish to her relationship with Rapunzel, particularly at its tragic end.
In this production, Sebastian Arcelus was supposed to be playing opposite his real-life wife Stephanie J. Block, but at the performance I attended, Ximone Rose stepped into the role. Without the program addendum, one would have been hard-pressed to tell that Arcelus and Rose haven't work together since the tour launched. Their chemistry is lovely and their voices blend beautifully.
Katy Geraghty is a delight as Little Red Ridinghood. Some performers in the role can sometimes lean too hard into the brattiness, whereas Geraghty oozes that uncanny (and mysteriously well-warranted) confidence that some children have. She lets the big moments get exactly big enough and her emotional breakdown near the end is as believable as her nonstop sass. She also makes a challenging vocal role seem effortless.
Cole Thompson is charming as Jack. Like Geraghty, he has a great sense of where the line is and never overplays the character's doltishness. Instead, he carries us along in Jack's excitement and his grief with a soaring voice.
Gavin Creel reprises his Broadway role as Cinderella's Prince/Wolf. It's astonishing that his performance in "Hello, Little Girl" is so huge and distinctive and yet I literally forgot about the role doubling, so ridiculous (in the best possible way) s his performance as the Prince. Creel and Jason Forbach (Rapunzel's Prince) mesh perfectly in their interactions, both vocally and physically.
Ellie Fishman stepped into the role of Cinderella for this performance (substituting for Diane Phelan). As with Rose's performance, it's to Fishman's credit that one would hardly guess that she has not played the role from the start. Her voice has a fluidity and lightness to its tone that really brings a sweetness to even the more operatic elements of the role.
In the supporting cast, Aimee Garcia is particularly good as Jack's mother, and David Patrick Kelly was clearly having so much fun with his roles at the Narrator and the Mysterious Man in New York that he had to bring that energy to this production. Chicago is lucky he did.
Into the Woods runs through May 7, 2023, at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago IL. For tickets, visit https://www.broadwayinchicago.com. For more information on the tour, visit intothewoodsbway.com.