BWW Review: Broadway Vets Shine in Delightful, Star-Studded INTO THE WOODS at the Hollywood Bowl
If you have ever been to one of Hollywood's Bowl's popular annual summer musical productions, then you're probably used to seeing big-name stars from the film, TV, or even recorded music world dip their feet into the musical theatre pool---some for the first time ever---for one weekend.
This kind of stunt-casting that involves non-theater folk in live musicals staged at this world-famous venue is certainly not new, but it is certainly almost always worth one's curiosity to see them perform in these shows, which for the Bowl often translates into boffo ticket sales that almost always sells out its 17,000 seats over three consecutive nights. Over the years, these summer musicals have produced both jaw-dropping surprises and, well, not so great ones (but, hey, kudos to these moonlighting celebrities for at least giving it a brave try).
This year, however, seems a little different than in previous years---and for a very good reason.
An inspired choice of a show, the Hollywood Bowl has decided to present an effervescently buoyant new production of the Tony Award-winning 1986 musical INTO THE WOODS, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's much beloved twisted take on traditional fairy tale stories mashed together with witty charm, tongue-tying (and tongue-in-cheek) lyrics, and gallows humor. This enjoyable, sublime production---directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom---is exquisite and thoroughly delightful from start to finish, quite a feat for the expansive Bowl stage which this show more than handily fills to its outer edges.
While, yes, there are indeed plenty of TV and film stars to be found singing and dancing their hearts out on stage in this latest Hollywood Bowl summer spectacular, most if not all of the assembled cast principals also come with impressive résumés packed with ample musical theater and/or musical-leaning credits, automatically lending lots of legit Broadway and stage street-cred to this three-show-only production (the show has two more performances this weekend, one on Saturday evening, July 27, and a final show on Sunday evening, July 28).
Without question, this move to populate the show with theatrical vets all but guaranteed a well-performed show... and, boy, does it deliver!
Already on paper, before the production even starts, the acting roster of this talent-spilling INTO THE WOODS almost reads like a dream cast for a bucket-list-baiting Broadway revival that all of us would clamor to experience beyond this Los Angeles-only presentation. And, as expected, once each accomplished cast member performs, their collective magical and enchanting stage prowess never fades (huge applause to the casting gods for putting together this excellent ensemble).
Playing the vengeful Witch next door is vocally-blessed Tony Award-winner Patina Miller, who currently stars on CBS' Madam Secretary (itself a show peppered with musical theater stars). The Baker is played by dreamy, velvet-voiced Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect, CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) whom I admittedly still fangirl over as an original cast member of SPRING AWAKENING. Astin shares most of his scenes with Tony Award-winning Broadway superstar-slash-fan favorite Sutton Foster, who winningly plays the Baker's wife with great aplomb (she currently stars in the hit TV Land series Younger and will soon return to Broadway in the highly-anticipated 2020 revival of THE MUSIC MAN).
Another Broadway fan favorite, the lovely and abundantly talented Sierra Boggess (THE LITTLE MERMAID, SCHOOL OF ROCK, PHANTOM) is simply superb as avian communicator/festival flee-er Cinderella. The character, of course, becomes the object of curious affection of a Prince played with dashing charm (haha) by Broadway-turned-Film/TV star Cheyenne Jackson (American Horror Story)---who also pulls double duty as the lustful, grandmother-eating predator, the Wolf.
INTO THE WOODS at the Bowl also features wonderful turns by the slyly funny Shanice Williams (who played Dorothy in NBC's Live telecast of The Wiz) as perpetually hungry Little Red Riding Hood; the beautiful---and beautifully operatic---Hailey Kilgore (a recent Tony nominee for her Broadway debut in the revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND) as the heartbreaking Rapunzel; swoon-worthy TV heartthrob Chris Carmack (The OC, Nashville, Grey's Anatomy) as Rapunzel's randy Prince paramour; and adorable spitfire Gaten Matarazzo---who started on the stage before becoming one of the breakout stars of the Netflix hit Stranger Things---appears as beanstalk-climbing Jack. No surprise, the talented young guy arguably drew the loudest screams of the night.
Remaining principal cast members include Broadway vets Edward Hibbert as the Narrator, Rebecca Spencer as Jack's mother, Tony Award-winner Anthony Crivello as the Mysterious Man, and EGOT Whoopi Goldberg as the voice (and digital silhouette) of the Giant. One could argue that this production's principal cast is the strongest, most theater-trained ensemble ever assembled for a Hollywood Bowl musical in most recent years---creating a perfect swirling storm of incredible acting and even better singing voices.
Beautifully sung and acted, this INTO THE WOODS curiously feels much more heightened than other iterations I have seen, despite its choice of just occupying, primarily, a center footprint on the massive Bowl stage. It is safe to say, though, that there is not a single weak link to be found in the cast and the chemistry between the actors on stage are off-the-charts palpable, as if they are a well-meshed real family that have been marinating in their respective roles for many years (instead of just a few weeks).
If you need a reason to come see this production, all you have to do is to look forward to being wowed by this cast.
Beyond the show's acting troupe, the production's many creative aspects are also worth praising.
Ann Hould-Ward's costume designs look stunning and appropriately fairy tale-esque on the cast, particularly the royal-leaning frocks for the two Princes and Cinderella. Miller's two distinctive costumes as the Witch looks lush and Tony-worthy opulent. Jef Knaggs' work on hair, wigs and makeup complete the fantastical illusions.
More than ever before, the show's elegant use of projections (designed by Adam Flemming) and lighting effects (designed by Tom Ruzika) on the surfaces of the bowl's massive stage are put to great use for this production, providing a gorgeously animated backdrop for the show that feels as though the characters are enveloped within an imposing environment. The magical touches added by the projections elevate its overall production value. The simple yet artistically-fashioned center structure designed by scenic designer Kevin Depinet---flanked on either side with a wide-set curved staircase frames the many intersecting stories well, and the clever use of shadows also create the illusion of other structures (Rapunzel's tower silhouette is a clever, creative solution).
Musically, Sondheim's iconic score sounds refreshed and newly vibrant from the on-stage, elevated orchestra conducted by musical director Kevin Stites. Paired alongside the cast's vocal talents and the effects sounds from sound designer Philip G. Allen, the Bowl is enveloped by a magical soundscape. At one point, the surround-sound of rumbles were so convincing, I had to wonder whether a real earthquake was happening (there have been a few lately so it is a valid concern).
So what exactly are the fairy tale stories being skewered in INTO THE WOODS? For those who are new to this often sardonic, darkly funny musical, INTO THE WOODS mostly focuses on three distinct stories in which the characters begin by "wishing" for something they desperately want... only to regret those wishes later when they don't exactly make things better. The expectation with Fairy tales, it seems, isn't always the "happily ever after" we all have been accustomed into thinking it would be.
In this enchanted land, a more proper warning would be... be careful what you wish for, because it may just come true.
Ominous, yes, but indeed a truth that children probably deserve to know instead of being coddled with the empty promises preambled by "Once Upon A Time."
First we meet the infamous Cinderella (a glorious Boggess), who despite being treated like a slave by her cruel stepmother (Edelyn Okano) and wicked stepsisters Lucinda (Stella Kim) and Florinda (Grace Yoo) only wishes for one thing: to go to the King's Festival, instead of, oh, you know, not being treated like crap anymore. Priorities much? Next we meet naive Jack (Matarazzo) who wishes that his bone-dry, emaciated cow Milky-White would produce milk, even though his mother would like to sell her for meat instead so, well, they wouldn't starve. And then there's the timid Baker (Astin) and his smart, strong-willed wife (the perfectly cast Foster), who both wish to have a child---something they have repeatedly failed to achieve.
Well, it turns out that their next-door neighbor from hell, an old and ugly Witch (Miller in an incredible, tour de force performance) had cast a long-standing, long-reaching infertility curse placed on the Baker's family out of revenge. Allegedly, the Baker's now dead father had stolen some "magic" beans from the Witch's garden. Soon we learn that in addition to the infertility curse, the Witch also kidnapped the Baker's then-infant sister whom she has locked away up in a high tower with no doors to go in or out for many years. The little girl would later grow up to be Rapunzel (Kilgore), whose long golden hair becomes the mechanism to let someone in or out of the tower. Rapunzel's only ever visitor is the Witch whom she has long believed to be her mother since she can remember.
Rapunzel herself has one wish: to leave the tower and explore what else is out there in the world. The witch, naturally, won't have it. She genuinely wants to shield Rapunzel from the dangers of the world. It turns out the witch also has a dream of her own---a dream that requires the Baker and his wife to complete specific tasks within three midnights, or else they stay infertile forever.
And thus begins the quest ... into the woods, where danger lurks in the form of lying strangers, ravenous wolves, horny princes, and, eventually, a vengeful giant. Along the way the Baker and his wife meet up with a runaway girl in a fancy frock, unable to decipher why she feels unsure about the romantic advances of royalty; a young man with a cow as white as milk and a penchant for stealing from giants; and a little girl with a healthy appetite and an alarming thirst for danger.
Surprisingly poignant and even slightly a bit cautionary, INTO THE WOODS up-ends traditional, more aspirational and hopeful fairy tale tropes and slaps them back into the real world. No, not all things turn out alright in the end. In fact, realistically, many things can go horribly, horribly wrong.
But in terms of INTO THE WOODS, the Hollywood Bowl production? Everything goes magically right. The sole minor hiccup of opening night: a repeatedly non-syncing sequence that featured the projected video of Cinderella's ghost mother (played by Tamyra Gray) that doesn't quite sync up to the voice heard 'round the Bowl. Hopefully they get the sync fixed for the rest of the run.
Of course, plenty of stand out moments make this production one of the most memorable summer musicals to ever grace the Bowl.
To no one's surprise, Foster masters the role of the Baker's wife with the ease of a seasoned musical comedy genius that also "gets" the stylistic tics of a Sondheim lyric or the nuance of a Lapine phrase. Like other roles she's taken on in the past---from the title role in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE or Fiona in SHREK to Reno Sweeney in ANYTHING GOES or even Michelle on the unfairly short-lived Bunheads---Foster makes this Baker's wife her own and it feels comfortably harmonious to her perfect acting choices and peerless talents. Lines in this musical that didn't make me chuckle in the past had me chortling loudly after Foster's delivery.
And Miller---my gosh. She was just altogether incredible. Her version of the Witch's rap is top notch. "Stay With Me" gave me goosebumps. Her "Last Midnight" is simply divine (and might be my favorite version ever). Her "Children Will Listen" got me teary-eyed.
Other standout moments include Matarazzo's smile-inducing performance of "Giants in the Sky," a wonderfully hilarious "Agony" featuring Jackson and Carmack hamming it up, a lovely "On The Steps of the Palace" from Boggess, and a marvelous "It Takes Two" from Foster and Astin. The rapid-fire exchanges in "Your Fault" is fun to experience with this cast, while "No One Is Alone" is just musical perfection that feels like the hug we all need in these divided times.
This is, quite possibly, the most talented and most vocally gifted star ensemble this stage has seen in their summer musical in quite some time. Every single star not only had the star wattage to get butts in seats, their musical theater chops---on full display and in tip top shape---had everyone thoroughly impressed. Bravo and congratulations to everyone involved with this magnificent production.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photographs taken by Craig Mathew at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.
Performances of INTO THE WOODS, featuring music by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, choreography and direction by Robert Longbottom, musical direction by Kevin Stites continue at the Hollywood Bowl for two additional performances on Saturday, July 27 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, July 28 (at 7:30 pm). Tickets are still available, and may be purchased online at HollywoodBowl.com, by phone at 323-850-2000, in person at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000, and at all Ticketmaster outlets.