SAN DIEGO — Once upon a time, there lived a childless baker and his wife, a poor widow with an only son named Jack and a lonely girl named Cinderella. And one day they all found themselves in the forest. . . .
That's as charming a premise for a musical comedy as anyone has ever devised, and the new musical at the Old Globe Theatre, "Into the Woods," has plenty of charm. As an example, the two dashing princes who woo Cinderella and Rapunzel (she's here, too) are brothers, making the whole thing even more of an operetta.
But since "Into the Woods" was devised by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, it also has brambles and dark places. And don't look for a happy-ever-after ending. The best thing that Cinderella and her friends can hope for is to get \o7 out\f7 of the woods . . . until the next time.
An advance photo of Cinderella's sisters in an advanced state of decolletage had prompted the worry that "Into the Woods" might take the low road of camp. Sondheim and Lapine have too much class for that. True, they're out to have some theatrical fun with these old tales from the forest. But they don't try to laugh them off.
They do try to see them in a contemporary way: to show Cinderella, Jack and, especially, the Baker as real people with real choices to make. How their stories will come out will depend on them, not on the narrator (John Cunningham). In fact, the narrator gets squashed by Jack's Giant in the second act, just as he's starting to point out the symbols.
And the story goes on perfectly well without him, albeit in unexpected ways. Red Riding Hood (LuAnne Ponce), for instance, becomes a positive menace to the wolf community. And the two Prince Charmings (Kenneth Marshall and Chuck Wagner), having captured their unattainable maidens, go shopping for new ones.
I won't reveal too much of the story. I'm not sure I could. Lapine's book is as intricate as Sondheim's lyrics, perhaps too intricate for a light entertainment. (Someone may have to go--maybe Rapunzel.) In a general way, Act I has our friends playing out their tales more or less as in the Brothers Grimm, but in counterpoint; while Act II gets them in real trouble.
They survive, but with losses. Disenchantment--always a Sondheim theme--hangs heavy in these woods. It's most keenly felt by Chip Zien as the Baker, a man who can't walk away from responsibility. He and his temptable wife (Joanna Gleason) are the fullest-explored characters, and we believe in their edgy seesaw marriage, which does not improve when they get their long-desired child. ("\o7 I wish\f7 . . . " is the leitmotif of the show, the most dangerous tune a human can sing.)
The other characters are seen more simply, or we'd be there all night. But everybody has real insides, not just stuffing. Barbara Bryne as Jack's mother, for example, might have stepped from a book of nursery rhymes, with her aprons and her sharp-pointed nose. But there's nothing quaint about her fears for her borderline-retarded son (Ben Wright). We see her problem. We also see his problem, getting unstuck from her.
Yet things don't get too clinical. That would have been easy in Little Red Riding Hood's case, and we can see that Sondheim and Lapine have read Dr. Bettleheim's "The Uses of Enchantment." But LuAnne Ponce makes Little Red Riding Hood one of those awesomely self-centered kids who take it all in stride--wolves, dead grandmothers, whatever. It's good comedy and hopeful psychology.
And what a witch! Ellen Foley does suffer a distinct drop in charisma when she changes to a civilian ball gown in Act II, which is something that costume designers Ann Hould-Ward and Patricia Zipprodt might think about. But Foley remains magnificently spiteful. Toward the end of the act, we need an extended number where someone says exactly what is on her mind, and Foley delivers it in "Boom, Crunch." "Want to know what's evil???" she shrieks. "Nice people's lies!"
Sondheim and Lapine (who also directed) are absolutely serious here. Like the Brothers Grimm, they see these stories as battles of good versus evil, with the characters always leaning away from the hard, right choice. To paraphrase Sondheim, the end always seems to justify the beans--until someone spills them.
"Into the Woods" isn't just rueful about the human condition, it's fairly depressed about it. This includes the propensity of fathers to take to the woods forever, another of the show's themes and the subject of Zien's big number, "No More"--not as clear a statement of his complaint, to my ears, as Foley's.
But Sondheim and Lapine bring out at least a little sunshine at the end. If the woods are dark, devious and deep, they're also places of trial and adventure. No one comes out of them--\o7 if\f7 he comes out of them--without learning something about himself. Happily ever after? No. Wisely ever after? Maybe.