NEW YORK — Stephen Sondheim writes musicals like no one else, so it is only natural that, drawing on the bedtime stories of our childhood, he would come up with a fairy tale musical like no other.
It is called "Into the Woods"--those deep, dark woods through which Little Red Riding Hood skips on her way to Grandma's and Cinderella flees on her mad dash from the ball. Among other familiar presences on hand are the ravenous wolf, the wicked stepsisters, golden-tressed Rapunzel, Jack (who climbed the beanstalk) and two handsome princes, one of whom has the honesty to admit, "I've been raised to be charming, not sincere."
In previous incarnations, they braved the thorns, bested the monsters, dispelled the curses and lived happily ever after. In "Into the Woods," which opened Thursday night at the Martin Beck Theatre, they are having a much harder go of it. Their innocence doesn't protect them, their wishes induce mostly frustration, and a giant is forever threatening to stomp them into the ground.
To survive in a threatening world--suspiciously like our own--they are going to have to grow up fast. Happily ever after really isn't the question. Survival is. Early on, Little Red Riding Hood learns to carry a knife in her basket along with the sweet cakes for Grandma.
For all the cockeyed and hilarious imagination it brings to the land of once-upon-a-time, "Into the Woods" is really a bittersweet affair. The perils of growing up, making choices and suffering the consequences have long preoccupied Sondheim. As far back as "Company" in 1970, he was pondering the difficulties of "Being Alive." He's still at it--this time in collaboration with James Lapine, who has written the book for "Into the Woods" and directs the sumptuous production.
Contradictory as it may sound, they are trying to spin enchantment out of disenchantment. Playfully, they're insisting that the playpen is booby-trapped. While they kick up their heels, one of of Cinderella's stepsisters, in her desperation to fit the slipper, lets a toe be whacked off with a sharp blade. "Annie" it's not. If Daddy Warbucks turned up in these woods, he'd probably be a pedophile. This is a fable for adults--who tend to believe more readily in vengeful witches than benevolent fairy godparents anyway.
Since the witch, a crook-fingered hag who is later metamorphosed into a luscious woman, is incarnated by Bernadette Peters, such a belief is easily justified. Peters is only one of many who shine in this endeavor (wryly suggestive of Paul Sills' lickety-split Story Theatre productions), dressed up to the nines or maybe the tens by costumer Ann Hould-Ward.
Those who have been waiting for Sondheim to return to the melodic charms of "Follies" or even "Merrily We Roll Along," however, must continue to wait. The score relies heavily on the pointillist recitatives he employed in "Sunday in the Park With George." The music is lovely, but it has the fleeting quality of wood smoke, blowing across the stage, rustling leaves and stirring up vague feelings of yearning and regret. What predominates--on first hearing, at least--are Sondheim's lyrics. Mother Goose, had she been a member of Mensa, might have turned out verse like this--perspicacious, witty, paradoxical and, of course, rife with the very rhymes you don't expect.
As in Shakespeare's forests, the elegantly filigreed woods, designed by Tony Straiges, serve as a meeting ground for characters who wouldn't meet otherwise. To assure that eventuality, Lapine has concocted his own fairy tale to add to the mix. It's the story of the baker and his wife, doomed by that cantankerous witch to a life of sterility. If they are ever to have children, they must first produce a cow white as milk, a cape red as blood, hair yellow as corn and a slipper fine as gold.
Since the cow belongs to Jack, the cape to Red Riding Hood, the hair to Rapunzel and the slipper to Cinderella, everyone gets drawn into the saga before long. The Baker and his wife (Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason, and both irresistible) are bound and determined to procure the specified objects, even if it means throwing a monkey wrench in the lives of characters who are struggling to follow their traditional destinies.
Jack, for instance, is reluctant to part with his treasured cow, Milky White, for a mere handful of beans. The Baker's Wife presses her arguments cannily, concluding, "If the end is right, it justifies the beans." She gets the cow. The fun of the first act comes from Sondheim and Lapine turning old tales upside down--sometimes with a touch of ghoulish glee--and yet still having them come out right in the end.