As I settled into my seat at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre Wednesday to enjoy the tour of the New York City Center Encores! production of Into the Woods that wowed audiences on Broadway last year, a few thoughts skittered through my mind. This was the first Stephen Sondheim musical I had seen since his death in 2021. My two favorite Sondheim shows–this one and Sunday in the Park with George–were the two for which James Lapine wrote the book. And, as the prologue, “Into the Woods,” kicked off with the full company, I began to marvel at how absolutely packed with talent these touring productions so often are. Shortly after that…

WE INTERRUPT THIS REVIEW FOR THE FOLLOWING UPDATE FROM THE TIKTOK ACCOUNT OF CAST MEMBER KENNEDY KANAGAWA:

“Tonight was the most insane show that has happened for Into the Woods so far. It’s our second night in Chicago and Ta’Nika Gibson has called out because she’s not feeling well, which meant Ellie Fishman had to go on for the role of Lucinda. … But then Diane Phelan, who plays Cinderella, started feeling ill after the opening number, and it got to the point where she realized she could not continue the show. So the show is still running, we are part of the way through Act One, and management makes the difficult, split-second decision of having Ellie switch from playing Lucinda to Cinderella and having Erica Durham replace her as Lucinda for the rest of the show. So the audience has no idea that any of this is happening and meanwhile backstage our wardrobe and hair teams are sprinting back and forth, switching out wigs and costumes and trying to get everyone in the right outfit. We ended up holding for, like, 45 seconds just to make sure that the transition was safe for everybody. And then we start the show back up with Ellie Fishman running onstage for ‘A Very Nice Prince.'”

AND NOW, BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED REVIEW:

Here’s how we experienced that transition in the audience. The narrator was speaking, the onstage orchestra was playing, and suddenly, an off-stage voice came over the speakers to say, “Good evening. Due to an illness, for the remainder of the performance, the role of Cinderella will be played by Ellie Fishman and the role of Lucinda will be played by Erica Durham. The show will resume shortly.” The narrator left the stage, music director John Bell picked up an old-school black telephone handset as the musicians looked on anxiously. And then, in under a minute, the show was once again rolling merrily along. When Fishman ran onstage as Cinderella, did her pre-song pratfall down the stairs and then delivered the line, with a wonderful sense of the moment, “I just need to catch my breath,” the crowd truly went wild. The show had to go on, and it did, spectacularly.

I’ve never seen anything like that in the middle of a big musical production. But while I’m not exactly a babe in these woods, I don’t have decades of theater reviewing experience. So when I ran into Hedy Weiss in the parking garage after the show, I had to ask if she had ever experienced anything similar to that. She had not. It was indeed a rare moment.

We were in good hands, great hands, actually, with the understudies and the regular cast. This production highlights the rich humor of the show, with big laughs coming from Gavin Creel as the Wolf and especially Cinderella’s Prince, which he plays with insouciant abandon and perhaps a sprinkle of Eric Trump; Katy Geraghty as a Little Red Ridinghood who knows the score; and Kanagawa, who brings the marvelously articulated cow puppet he lugs around the stage to hilariously baleful life.

But the beauty of this show lies in the depths of emotion it explores in those deep, dark woods, especially in the “be careful what you wish for” Act Two. It may be true that no one lives in the woods, but their pull is strong, for those seeking sexual awakening, or escape from life’s constrictions, or a little magic, or to get away from shame, or even for a fling or two. In Sondheim’s masterful hands, these fairly tales reveal a complexity that goes far beyond Grimm.

Like the giant’s wife, the songs are all killer, no filler. And they are beautifully played and sung across the board, but especially by Montego Glover as Witch, and Fishman as Cinderella. Creel, once again, slayed with “Agony,” his riotous duet with Jayson Forbach (Rapunzel’s Prince), and, in his wolf guise, “Hello, Little Girl” with Geraghty.

Even though the woods were full of theatrical jinxes Wednesday night, this likely will go down as one of the most entertaining and satisfying musical productions to hit Chicago this year.

Into the Woods runs through May 7 at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre.

For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.

Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade