In the past year or so, Into the Woods, the celebrated 1988 musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) has enjoyed a surge in popularity that has included a sold-out (just try to get tickets!) run at City Center in New York City last spring, leading to a popular limited run of the show on Broadway in the latter half of 2022.
Luckily for those who weren’t able to head north to see it during that time period, much of that same Broadway production (directed by Lear DeBessonet), including many members of the Broadway cast and the lovely set design, has been transported to the Kennedy Center for the next few weeks, providing a perfect opportunity to experience the magic that comes from combining well-known fairy tales with the consequences of the characters’ own actions.
On the surface, the storyline of Into the Woods can seem frivolous—just a bunch of familiar tales woven together into a loose narrative. But just like the fairy tales themselves, peek under the hood and you’ll find some dark undertones, with themes that include a person’s moral responsibilities to others and the consequences of the choices you make. How much those dark undertones poke at the surface has varied from production to production and—I suspect—from performance to performance. Over the years, some popular productions of the show have been so dark you couldn’t miss the underlying warnings while others have landed squarely in the fairy tale “ever after” realm.
The production at the Kennedy Center finds itself straddling this line between light and dark, with just a touch more humor than horror woven into the tale. Thanks to solid portrayals of the hapless Baker by Jason Forbach (at this performance, regularly played by Sebastian Arcelus) and the Baker’s Wife, played by Stephanie J. Block, contrasted with standout humorous performances by Katy Geraghty as Little Red Ridinghood and Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince / Wolf, the push and pull of the ordinary and the ridiculous is front and center. It’s easy to sympathize with the Baker and his wife on their journey to right the wrongs of the past while laughing at the antics of Little Red or the always charming, but never sincere, Prince. As the story’s villain (kind of), Montego Glover’s portrayal of the Witch, comes to life in the second act of the show, serving as the voice of truth and reminding each character of the choices they made that led them to where they are now.
Some of the more minor characters also have their moments in the sun. Rayanne Gonzales as the beleaguered mother of Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) transforms the smaller role into a crowd pleaser with every mom in the audience likely sympathizing with her as she tries to navigate the difficult territory of raising a child who is a bit too old to be a boy, but not quite ready to take on the role of man of the house. Jack’s beloved pet, Milky White, the story’s “cow as white as milk,” is brought to life through wonderfully expressive puppetry from Kennedy Kanagawa that transforms Milky White from a bag of bones into a puppy you’d love to take home. Additional puppetry throughout the show is an adept way of showing some of the more magical parts of the tale without needing unnecessary and expensive set pieces that would contrast with set designer David Rockwell’s lovely, and rather spare, design theme.
Speaking of the set, the woods are created by tree-trunk–type shapes that descend from the top of the theater and provide just the barebones of the forest. I enjoyed having the orchestra on stage, in view, with the members helping to fill out the feel of the woods as a dense and dark place. The show’s lighting design (by Tyler Micoleau) also serves a purpose here, particularly in the second act as the trees themselves turn red to reflect both the present danger and bloodshed and the background behind the woods changes color with the characters’ moods and predicaments.
While the second half of the show is most definitely darker than the first act in its themes, parents of younger kids need not worry about taking them to see this show. While not all the characters make it out of the woods alive, most deaths occur off-stage and aren’t likely to provoke fear or tears from younger viewers. In fact, it is the slightly older crowd, again mostly parents, who are likely to feel songs such as “The Witch’s Lament” or “Stay With Me” deep in their bones.
For all its humor, clever lyrics, and deep emotions, ultimately Into the Woods is a show about grappling with the big questions of life—what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s in between—and whether the ends really do justify the means (or the beans, in this case). So if you think you are ready to delve into whether nice is different from good, Into the Woods at the Kennedy Center is the perfect place to suss it all out while laughing, crying, and cheering for the fairy tale characters of your childhood. If you regret missing out on the Broadway production, don’t repeat your mistake…head over to see Into the Woods and find out if wishes really do come true.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Into the Woods plays through March 19, 2023, in the Opera House Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$189) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
$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.
A limited number of $35 Mobile Rush tickets will be available for every performance on TodayTix. See TodayTix for details.
The program for Into the Woods is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.
Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Lear DeBessonet
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
‘It’s a dream come true’: Felicia Curry and Rayanne Gonzales on ‘Into the Woods’ (interview by Chad Kinsman, February 23, 2023)