NEW YORK (AP) -- Cracked fairy tales are all the rage right now, aren't they? There's "Once Upon a Time" on ABC, "Grimm" on NBC and "Snow White and the Huntsman" at the movie theaters. So it's nice to welcome back one of the first in the genre — "Into the Woods."
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's twisted take on Cinderella and Co. is being given a thrilling, inventive revival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, part of the Public Theater's 50th anniversary season. It opened Thursday and runs through Sept. 1, when — poof — it disappears.
The show, starring Amy Adams, Denis O'Hare and Donna Murphy and based on the 2010 Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production in London, wonderfully mixes wit and menace — perfect as twilight falls over the park, itself a woods.
Directed by Timothy Sheader with co-direction by Liam Steel, this production uses a boy who has run away from home as the Narrator and who, at least before a Giant gets to him, seems to conjure the show from his own imagination.
Sondheim and Lapine cleverly throw several classic Grimm fairy tales into a blender — Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella — and add a dash of Carl Jung. The tales then emerge intertwined and unmoored and unfinished. The first act ends happily with everyone getting what they want in the classic way; the second explores the unhappy consequences (Hint: Witches and giants are people, too. They also have families who get upset if you kill them).
Lovely touches abound in this production, from the cow puppet that may remind theatergoers of the best of "War Horse," to Little Red Riding Hood in a bike helmet and totting a digital camera. The Mysterious Man cracks opens beers, a beanstalk is created from umbrellas and the Giant, voiced by Glenn Close, looks as if summoned from a New Yorker cartoon by Roz Chast.
All the visuals would be worthless without a book and score that are simply masterful. Sondheim, who supplied lyrics and music, strings one beautifully crafted tune after another, among them "Agony," "Children Will Listen," "No One Is Alone" and "It Takes Two."
Lapine's deftness with structure — melded with an obvious sense of daffiness — means this is exhilarating theater: You don't know who to root for and you don't know what will happen next. Some theatergoers may grouse that they've written something overly complex and show-offy. Hopefully, the wolf eats those people, too.
The musical, first produced on Broadway in 1987, is framed by the story of the Baker (O'Hare) and his wife (Adams) who have been cursed by a witch (Murphy) into remaining childless. To remove the spell, they must venture into the wood and steal Little Red Riding Hood's cape, Cinderella's slipper, Jack's cow, and a clump of Rapunzel's hair.
The Baker and his wife — stand-ins for any modern couple — must compromise their beliefs to obtain what they want and everyone learns lessons about themselves. "Everyone tells tiny lies," sings the wife. "What's important, really, is the size." At another point, Red comes to the conclusion that: "Nice is different than good."
O'Hare and Adams are interesting choices for the Baker and his wife and deliver sweet if not note-perfect performances. No matter, the rest of the cast is more than capable, even if sometimes the harmonies are a little ragged. Balancing the humor with real pathos isn't easy but they fully commit.
Murphy is superb as the Witch, drily sarcastic and evil in her dreadlocks and oversized talons, and equally ravishing and — hungrily aware of it — when her own spell is lifted. Her stunning voice and physicality make it a pity when she gets sucked into the earth, screaming.
Ivan Hernandez is wonderful as both a sexy, Chippendales-inspire d Wolf and a snooty, self-absorbed Prince Charming; his duets with Cooper Grodin as Rapunzel's Prince are a highlight. Sarah Stiles and Jessie Mueller, two survivors from one of last season's worst shows on Broadway, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," bounce back winningly as an oddball Red on the cusp of womanhood and a sad sack Cinderella, respectively.
Set designer Soutra Gilmour has melded her vision of multi-level wood platforms and staircases — a sort of elaborate tree house — with John Lee Beatty work from the previous tree-laden show this summer, "As You Like It." With only the sky as the ceiling, they've pushed into giddy heights to create Rapunzel's tower, dozens of feet in the air. One criticism is the uneven lighting: With so much going on, and so many actors popping in and out, spotlights sometimes aren't as fast keeping up and without them it's not always clear who is speaking.
At the musical's close, four battle-weary figures appear like victors at the end of a Michael Bay movie — Jack, Cinderella, Baker and Red. They're dirty, they've all lost loved ones, and risked everything to defeat an enemy, one who, alas, turns out to have been not exactly evil.
Grimm, indeed. But never grim.
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