Before a single word had been spoken or sung at Tuesday night’s performance of “Into the Woods,” a burst of fervent applause rained down upon the cast, who were arrayed across the stage at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, looking out at the packed house.
That audience reaction served as a reminder of the special place this 1987 musical occupies in the hearts of many theatergoers because “Into the Woods” — not, say, “Sweeney Todd,” not even “West Side Story” or “Gypsy” — was their introduction to Stephen Sondheim.
The captivating production at the Colonial, directed by Lear deBessonet, is proof positive that many riches are still to be found in those woods. They remain, to borrow from Robert Frost, “lovely, dark and deep."
That’s not a bad description of Sondheim’s score, actually. But “Into the Woods” encompasses a wide tonal and emotional range, from humor to heartache, in deBessonet’s spare, concert-style production, with the orchestra seated upstage at the Colonial amid a forest of birch trees.
There have been countless high school or regional theater productions of “Into the Woods," not to mention the starry 2014 film version, but its peculiar brand of magic is undimmed.
Sondheim’s songs, which contain some of his deftest wordplay and most piercing insights, elevate and compensate for the somewhat choppy book by James Lapine, who was also Sondheim’s collaborator on “Sunday in the Park with George" (1984).
“Into the Woods” entwines characters from classic fairy tales with newly invented ones. Pretty much everyone is yearning for or searching for something. Ah, but how to resolve the dilemma that can arise when you get what you think you want?
And, not so incidentally, what are they going to do about that rampaging giant who’s flattening everything and everyone in sight?
Act One of “Into the Woods” is frequently funny. Then in Act Two the shadows — Sondheim’s comfort zone — start to fall across those woods in earnest. The body count piles up, and by the end virtually every character left onstage has lost a loved one. Relationships are complex and friction-filled in “Into the Woods”: of husband and wife, of parent and child, of royalty and commoner.
The Baker (Sebastian Arcelus) and the Baker’s Wife (Stephanie J. Block) desperately want to have a baby, but a Witch (Montego Glover) has put a curse on them. To reverse the curse, the Witch tells the couple, they must go into the woods and find a cow “as white as milk,” a cape “as red as blood,” hair “as yellow as corn,” and a slipper “as pure as gold.”
So off the couple goes on that bizarre shopping expedition. The woods turn out to be pretty crowded.
Nearly all of the actors in the touring production that has arrived at the Colonial had performed at some point in “Into the Woods” on Broadway. Perhaps that helps explain why it’s such a well-oiled machine, though there’s nothing mechanical about the performances.
That Broadway-to-Boston roster includes Glover, Arcelus, and Block. (Block and Arcelus will not perform March 28-April 2. For those performances, the roles of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife will be played by Jason Forbach and Ximone Rose.)
Glover is mesmerizing in her ominous Act Two solo, “Last Midnight.” The Witch’s daughter, Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), wants her freedom — not unreasonably after all that time cooped up in the tower — but Glover still cracks the heart in “Witch’s Lament” when she sings: “Children can only grow/ From something you love/ To something you lose.”
Also on board from Broadway are a gleefully hammy Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s foppish Prince and as the sinister Wolf; Katy Geraghty, who is flat-out hilarious as an imperious and fearless Little Red Ridinghood; and Diane Phelan as Cinderella, who entrances Creel’s Prince but, in “On the Steps of the Palace,” gives voice to the ambivalence that runs through “Into the Woods” (”I know what my decision is/ Which is not to decide”).
Then there’s David Patrick Kelly as the Narrator and a Mysterious Man whose identity is no mystery at all; Cole Thompson as young, ingenuous Jack, utterly devoted to his cow, Milky White, the most soulfully expressive puppet I’ve ever seen; Kennedy Kanagawa, the exceptionally skillful puppeteer who manipulates Milky White; and Aymee Garcia as Jack’s Mother, who tells her son they must sell the cow, asserting, in one of my favorite Sondheim rhymes: “We’ve no time to sit and dither/ While her withers wither with her.”
There’s been a stampede of Sondheim revivals since the nonpareil composer-lyricist died in November 2021 at age 91. A new Broadway staging of “Sweeney Todd,” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, began previews last month. Later this year Broadway will be home to a production of “Merrily We Roll Along” starring Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame. In addition, it was recently reported that “Here We Are,” Sondheim’s long-gestating musical inspired by the Luis Buñuel films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel,” will be presented off-Broadway in September.
But until then, this “Into the Woods” will do nicely.
INTO THE WOODS
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Lear deBessonet. At Emerson Colonial Theatre. Through April 2. $39-$249. 888-616-0272, www.EmersonColonialTheatre.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.