There is always something special about seeing Into the Woods performed outside, and there is plenty of magic to be found in the all-star production at the iconic Hollywood Bowl. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, opened last night for a weekend run of only three performances, the latest entry in the Bowl’s long-standing tradition of producing an annual fully-staged musical. Featuring an impressive slate of Broadway talent that feels assembled directly from the fever dreams of the most devoted musical theater fanatics, this campy take on the mash-up of fairy tales is so beautifully sung that any shortcomings in the staging are easily forgiven.
Into the Woods intertwines stories and characters from several popular fairy tales. The focal point is the story of a childless Baker (Skylar Astin) and his Wife (Sutton Foster), who learn a Witch (Patina Miller) cursed them long ago, causing their infertility. She sends them on a quest to collect specific items, promising if they follow her instructions she will lift the spell. The items are a cow as white as milk, possessed by Jack (Gaten Matarazzo) from the story “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a cape as red as blood, donned by Little Red Riding Hood (Shanice Williams), the hair as yellow as corn, found on the head of Rapunzel (Hailey Kilgore), and the slipper as pure as gold, worn by Cinderella (Sierra Boggess). While act one focuses on the characters achieving their various “happily ever afters,” act two takes a tonal shift, exploring the consequences of wish fulfillment and how even when we get what we thought we wanted, it is rarely enough to satisfy.
There have been many different takes on this show over the years, and it can certainly go very dark. This version, directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, largely opts not to. The costumes (Ann Hould-Ward), many of which are repurposed from the original Broadway production, are bright and cartoonish, evoking the feeling of old animated Disney features with Jack and and the Baker’s Wife donning bright orange wigs. When the Witch transforms, she wears a sequined purple mermaid-style gown, reminiscent of a prom dress from the early aughts. The song “Hello, Little Girl,” in which the Wolf (Cheyenne Jackson, who also plays Cinderella’s Prince) stalks and seduces Little Red, is about the least suggestive I’ve ever seen it, and of course there is the fact that Matarazzo is only 16 (the role of Jack is typically played by an adult). The show has a Narrator (Edward Hibbert), which is done very classically here, with him occasionally appearing stage right and reading from a large book. In some productions, this role is combined with that of the Mysterious Man (Anthony Crivello), and in 2012 at the Delacorte Theater in New York they even had a child narrate.
Bowl musicals are often a mixed bag due to occasionally desperate stunt casting and extremely limited rehearsal time, but if this cast was simply singing Into the Woods in concert it would still be a treat, so anything extra feels like a bonus. But, the “woods” are rather paltry, merely four tiny trees that the ensemble moves around the stage, and Milky White is bizarrely small next to Matarazzo, evoking thoughts of the recent Cats trailer with how off-scale he seems. The only serious issue opening night was an unfortunate problem with video projections of Cinderella’s Dead Mother (Tamyra Gray) being completely out of synch with the actress’s voice. Luckily, when the Giant (Whoopi Goldberg) appeared in act two, the projections were done in a different way that went off without a hitch.
Proving the widespread popularity of Stranger Things, Matarazzo got the loudest cheers of the night. While vocally not quite on the level of his co-stars, he did a perfectly solid job singing and balanced it out with a performance that oozed charm. Astin was also charming as the bumbling Baker, sounding terrific and playing perfectly off Foster, who is just perfectly cast as the Baker’s Wife. A comedic actress through and through, she finds the funny in the role, which is appropriate for the tone of this production, and her “Moments in the Woods” was a particular treat. Boggess has the voice of an angel and simply dazzled as Cinderella, especially on the moving “No One is Alone,” a highlight of the night. Another memorable moment was “Agony,” the hilariously over-the-top song sung by Jackson as Cinderella’s Prince and Chris Carmack as Rapunzel’s Prince. Both were delightful, although at times Jackson, who possesses a phenomenally strong voice, seemed to be holding back slightly as to not completely outdo his counterpart.
But the night belonged to Miller, who seemed to be having the time of her life as the Witch. From her flawless rap in act one to a stunning “Last Midnight” in act two, she steals the show with her swagger and gorgeous vocals. The Witch’s story usually ends with her being struck down by another curse, but here, in a true power move, no such thing happens. Instead, she simply says her parting words and struts off the stage, leaving the other characters to deal with the consequences of the events she set in motion. Overall, seeing these incredible actors sing what I consider to be one of Sondheim’s best scores feels like a rare treat that should not be missed if you are a theater fan in Los Angeles this weekend.
Into the Woods has two more performances at the Hollywood Bowl, Saturday, July 27th at 8pm, and Sunday, July 28th at 7:30pm. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets starting at only $17 are still available and can be purchased here.