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The touring production of Into the Woods that’s currently onstage at the Miller Theater features Tony Award-winners like Stephanie J. Block and Gavin Creel, Broadway veterans like Sebastian Arcelus and Montego Glover, and rising talents like Cole Thompson and Katy Geraghty. For a road company, it’s an unusually stacked assemblage of performers. But the star of the show barely sings a word of Stephen Sondheim’s legendary score.
I’m referring, of course, to Kennedy Kanagawa, the preternaturally expressive puppeteer who manipulates Milky White, the beloved cow who serves as a prime mover in Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairytale of princes, witches, giants, and endearingly flawed mortals. Ever since this staging debuted as part of New York City Center’s Encores series last May, Kanagawa has been lauded for turning what could easily be a sight gag into the story’s beating heart.
Kanagawa brings an extraordinary physicality to his track—when he’s not toting Milky White’s large, lanky carcass across the stage, he flutters around with the birds that offer comfort and advice to Cinderella. (The puppet design is by James Ortiz.) Yet the emotionality he captures is even more memorable, charting an uncanny valley between puppet and performer that leaves the viewer questioning where one ends and the other begins.
Watch as Kanagawa subtly tilts Milky White’s head in sad resignation when Jack (Thompson), his devoted master, sells him to the Baker and his Wife (Arcelus and Block) for a handful of beans. Actors spend years at Juilliard to master that kind of touching transparency. Or observe the shocked convulsions that occur when the Witch (Glover) brings Milky White back to life in order to fulfill her own prophecy. It’s at once funny and chilling.
Wanted: irony and edge
Whenever Kanagawa is on stage, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and he would surely be a focal point of any production. Here, though, his unexpected star turn underscores the deficits of a rather desultory staging that elides or ignores the elements that make this musical popular and enduring. In choosing to refract the fairytale genre through a human lens, Sondheim and Lapine revealed the darker reality that lurks beneath wish fulfillment. Instead, director Lear deBessonet largely ignores the poignant parable at the heart of the tale: “Wishes come true, not free.”
Major elements of the show include its irony and edge, which reflect not only the period in which it was created—the late 1980s, amid the cresting wave of the Me Decade—but the dramaturgical driving force of the musical’s structure. The sweet promises of Act 1 give way to the hard truths of Act 2. The Baker and Baker’s Wife discover that raising a child is far more difficult than simply wanting one. Cinderella learns that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the palace wall. The Witch must contend with placing her desire for beauty above the loss of her powers.
Who among us hasn’t gotten exactly what they wanted at some point and met the moment with emptiness rather than ebullience? Sondheim, that great chronicler of the troubled psyche, certainly understood that. But deBessonet’s production seems intent to reduce the material to pageantry and a cloying sweetness more suitable to children’s theater. Junior productions of Into the Woods often skip the second act, where the shit hits the fan; here, it hardly matters, so thoroughly is the tone of the piece neutered.
Audiences deserve more
In addition, the staging looks cheap, even by touring standards. David Rockwell’s set consists of several pillars and a hollow full moon, which leaves the heavy lifting of establishing place and mood to Tyler Micoleau’s vivid lighting design. The costumes (by Andrea Hood) are almost universally unflattering—the “glamorous” post-transformation gown for the Witch resembles the worst bridesmaid dress you’ve ever seen—and the larger bodies onstage are relegated to wearing sack-like schmattes. The production may have originated as a concert, but audiences paying upwards of $100 a ticket deserve more.
Some performers nearly reach Kanagawa’s level: Arcelus makes for a gentle, low-key Baker, and Glover brings a blazing voice to the Witch’s barnstorming numbers. Diane Phelan sings beautifully as Cinderella, although she lacks much in the way of personality and spark. Broadway veteran Nancy Opel is a welcome presence as Cinderella’s comically evil Stepmother. But for a cast with lots of star wattage, their chemistry only occasionally flickers.
There is no doubt that Into the Woods remains a relevant and powerful show. Last season, the Arden delivered a production that ranks among the best Sondheim stagings I've ever seen. But aside from Kanagawa’s justly celebrated Milky White, this version couldn’t reach the heart of the material with a trail of breadcrumbs.
What, When, Where
Into the Woods. By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Lear deBessonet. $89-$129. Through April 9, 2023, at the Miller Theater, 250 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The Miller Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Tickets can be purchased online by calling patron services at (215) 893-1999 or by emailing [email protected]. The 7:30pm performance on Friday, April 7, will be ASL-interpreted and audio-described.
Masks are not required.
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