To witness Kennedy Kanagawa bring the cow Milky White to vibrant life in Into the Woods is a pleasure to behold. The way in which Milky White responds — with resounding sadness at being taken to market by Jack (of Beanstalk fame), or with sheer exuberance, giddily shaking its head side to side and literally smiling during the ensemble’s reprisal of the title song, is the kind of thing that makes theater undeniably magical.
The simplicity of the arrangement, with Kanagawa in full, unconcealed view, literally at one with the object, only solidifies the strength of the illusion.
“This was my first puppet,” says Kanagawa, whose credits typically veer toward the more traditional side of musical theater (Jesus Christ Superstar, Falsettos), thanks to a silvery tenor that possesses a sturdy, to-the-rafters belt when needed.
“Milky White is such a unique puppet that I was able to go in without any preconceived notions of how a puppet was supposed to be operated,” he continues. “What do we have? We have a handle on the head. We have a handle on the butt and a little lever that opens and closes her mouth. How do we utilize those tools to make her do whatever we need her to do? Just figuring out the combination of swinging her legs with gravity and modeling her physicality more after a dog or a cat than an actual cow was really useful in endearing her to the audience.
“Because cows are really boring in real life. They’re not interesting to watch.”
Kanagawa has been personifying Milky White since the show’s debut as a City Center’s Encores! in New York. That limited staged concert evolved into a full-on, critically-heralded Broadway run, which, in turn, lead to much of the original cast picking up after the show closed and heading out on a nine-city tour, with the Kennedy Center Opera House as the first stop.
The production is one of the freshest — and funniest — Into the Woods in recent memory. Director Lear deBessonet mines untold humor — along with the customary gravity — from the storied Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical that fractures well-known fairy tales by giving them a grim psychological spin.
Milky White was designed by the legendary James Ortiz, whose works have been seen in Washington, D.C. at the Shakespeare Theater, with 2019’s Peter and Wendy, for which he devised a monstrous crocodile, and a luminous Tempest in 2014. For Into the Woods, Ortiz not only designed Milky White, but Cinderella’s flittering birds and, perhaps most impressively, a clever and unique visual representation of the Giant’s vengeful wife, a surprise — stunning in both its simplicity and effectiveness — that will not be spoiled here.
In most productions, including the original Broadway run in 1987, Milky White is treated as a prop, visually lifeless, on rollers wheeled around the stage. A spectacular production at Ford’s Theater in 2019 reimagined Milky White with a costumed actor — the mop-headed Tiziano D’Affuso, who imbued the role with unbridled joy. But this Milky White invents a new template for what can be accomplished with what the script terms a prop.
“Our Milky White is not just a prop,” says Kanagawa. “It’s funny because when you look at the script, it’s just mentioned in stage directions as a prop, which is how it was initially created. We sat down on our first day and went through the script and tracked all the points in which the cow prop is mentioned and then connected those dots into a character arc and figured out, ‘Okay, what is her dynamic with the different characters? How does she feel? What is she after?’
“I love this show, but I’ve never thought of Milky White as a character before. Now I can’t imagine the show without her, because I love her so much.”
Playing Into the Woods at the Kennedy Center marks a homecoming for the 37-year-old Kanagawa. “I was born in Tokyo,” he says. “And we moved to Northern Virginia — to Great Falls — when I was 10. I was here through high school and then left for college. So I grew up seeing shows at the Kennedy Center. I had a Kennedy Center tote bag. It would always make jokes that it was named after me.”
The current tour runs through August with stops including Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Los Angeles. After that, Kennedy is hoping his widely seen, critically-praised work as Milky White will give his career an extra boost. Though he has no clear answer when asked what classic musical role he’d most like to sing.
“Whenever I get asked that, I think about the established shows of the Broadway canon,” he says. “And I find that I’m more excited for new works. As a gay, half-Asian person born overseas, I don’t see a lot of myself in the old Broadway shows. And I do a lot of amazing readings and workshops of new shows. So I’m excited to introduce new narratives to the industry.”
Into the Woods plays in the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday, March 19. Tickets are $45 to $199. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.
The tour continues with stops in Boston (3/21-4/2), Philadelphia (4/4-4/9), Charlotte (4/11-4/16), Chicago (4/25-5/7), Nashville (5/23-5/28), Orlando (6/6-6/11), San Francisco (6/20-6/25) and Los Angeles (6/27-7/30). Visit www.intothewoodsbway.com.
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