Arts & Entertainment, Features, Reviews

REVIEW: Emerson Colonial Theatre’s ‘Into the the Woods’ — a refreshing take on a Sondheim classic, but doesn’t pack an emotional punch

Tony-award winner Stephanie J. Block sobbed at the end of “Moments in the Woods” last night.

In her portrayal of the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods,” she managed to break free of the character’s greatest curse, which can be found in her namesake. Too often, the role seems solely to exist in effort to serve the character arc of her husband, but Block didn’t fall into that trap.

She surprised me with her take. It was dynamic, compelling and emotional. At the end of “Moments in the Woods” it was clear her character had realized she cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good — something I think all college students, on some level, are struggling with. She seemed devastated she hadn’t realized it sooner.

The website for Emerson Colonial Theatre’s “Into the Woods.”
The website for Emerson Colonial Theatre’s “Into the Woods.” The Emerson Colonial Theatre is running a production of “Into The Woods” until April 2. ISABELLE MEGOSH/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

I had never seen anything like it in a production of “Into the Woods.”

Unfortunately, Block’s performance seemed to be the exception rather than the rule in this production. Despite director Lear deBessonet’s stripped-back production that aimed to make the show feel less mystical and more human, the show felt more intellectually stimulating than emotional.

“Into the Woods” has had a fairy tale-esque quality since it first opened on Broadway in 1987. It weaves together Brothers Grimm characters into a cautionary tale about wishes. We follow a Baker (Sebastian Arcelus, Block’s real-life spouse) and his wife (Block) as they journey into the woods in order to break a curse placed upon them by the Witch (Montego Glover) who lives next door. They hope to achieve their greatest wish — to have a child together.

It was clear why the show was being revived now. When the characters sacrificed the ever-reliable narrator of the story to the Giant at the top of the second act, my mind went to today’s political climate. Throwing the source of truth to the sidelines was hard to watch.

When Glover sings her heart out in “Stay with Me,” attempting to protect her child from “what’s out there in the world,” it felt like a look into the private corridors of many American homes. Like she was telling us a secret about the heartbreak she as a mother feels for the danger of all children.

But these things didn’t strike me in my heart. Glover was impressive but not necessarily emotional, as was the case with most of the cast. While the show’s score is remarkable — it is Stephen Sondheim, after all — the story feels like it’s trying to prove its worth to us.

Its comedy is fantastic, especially Gavin Creel’s portrayal of The Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, and his larger-than-life physicality. Kennedy Kanagawa’s puppeteering work for Milky White, Jack’s beloved cow, stole the show. I found myself searching for more connection from the rest of the cast, though, especially Cole Thompson’s Jack and Diane Phelan’s Cinderella.

That said, the show translates well to the tour medium, particularly in a city like Boston filled with young people grappling with the questions of growing up. If deBessonet was attempting to bring “Into the Woods” into a 2023 climate, she certainly succeeded. But if she was trying to tug at her audience’s heartstrings — set aside some remarkable acting choices — the production fell short.

Nonetheless, it made me think. And perhaps, especially considering it was able to do so nearly 40 years after its original release, that is the hallmark of a truly impressive work.

“Into the Woods” will run through April 2, 2023, at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.

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