But the woods are not just where you venture in search of fortune. They are also the preserve of death and destruction. The miraculous concatenation of events that can result in unimaginable happiness--or a hen that lays golden eggs--can also awaken demons. Jack slays the giant in the first act, as he's supposed to. But there's still the giant's mother to reckon with in the second. We never see her, but the stage rumbles with her heavy footstep and she casts a dark shadow over huddled mortals, who suddenly look very small and very lost.
Characters who thought they'd come to the end of their stories find themselves, once again, forced to go back into the woods to protect their sanity and keep chaos from the doorstep. "Giants never strike the same house twice," says Jack's mother, played with splendidly droll exasperation by Barbara Bryne. But, of course, she's wrong. The giants never go away--they're just held at bay temporarily, and at a huge cost.
Indeed, the ranks are severely depleted at the end of "Into the Woods." The survivors, looking to explain the carnage, take what solace there is in the thought that "No One Is Alone." The number is a poignant expression of solidarity in troubled times. Gestures do count. Someone is on your side. "No one leaves for good." The battered characters are trying hard to believe. So, one suspects, is Sondheim.
And so are we. The uplift is tentative, hesitant, maybe only the final wish in a show strewn with wishes. However, this cast constitutes such a marvelous ensemble, united by uncommon talent and a manifest love for what they are doing, that the message comes through. The interconnectedness Sondheim wants to celebrate as our only defense against the dark has been practiced all evening long by the players themselves.
Gleason has an appealing take-charge pragmatism as the Baker's Wife, who discovers to her delight that her husband is more of a man than she suspected. And indeed, Zien grows from a nobody, dusted with flour, to a battle-scarred somebody. Danielle Ferland's Little Red Riding Hood, a pudge ball with sausage curls, could be Shirley Temple's petulant sister. She's got path smarts, if not street smarts, and when the satyr-like wolf (Robert Westenberg) accosts her, it's not immediately clear who's going to get the best of whom.
Carrot-topped Ben Wright makes a sweetly benighted Jack, his wits as dim as his eyes are wide, while Kim Crosby gives Cinderella an amusingly klutzy side (how else could she lose that slipper so easily?) and a distracted air that comes from "being pursued" when she's "not in the mood." Westenberg is her Prince Charming, but Rapunzel also has a noble suitor, played by Chuck Wagner. In one of the show's funniest numbers, the princes confess to preferring the ecstatic "Agony" of the pursuit over the bliss of the catch.
But then, everybody is discovering that wishes aren't all they're cracked up to be, especially when they come true. "Into the Woods" may be filled with magical effects--chess-set castles that rise from the ground, carrousel horses towing gilded carriages, and puffs of cumulous smoke marking apparitions and disappearances. But sooner or later, the magic goes dead and the clouds dissipate.