"Into the Woods," that delicious spin on Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and other fairy tales, is dark and dazzling, full of wicked wit and glowing melodies: It is unmistakably a Stephen Sondheim musical. Still, it's James Lapine's show, too. Lapine wrote the book and directed the original production in 1987, and he has been tinkering with his creation.
Lapine's new production opened last night on Broadway, and he is now offering a warmer, mellower "Into the Woods." Changes are everywhere, but the alterations aren't radical. Sondheim fans will want to know that the three little pigs make a cameo appearance in this staging, and that Jack's cow -- once a plastic statue, now a fabulously expressive puppet in the "Lion King" vein -- dances and fetchingly flicks its ears.
"Our Little World," a duet between the Witch and Rapunzel that was part of productions in London and here at Signature Theatre, has been included. And "The Last Midnight" is sung by the Witch (played by the ever-sultry Vanessa Williams) as a menacing lullaby to an infant held hostage.
There are also some impressive technical upgrades, particularly the thunderous giant, suggested by a huge projected shadow and given voice (recorded on tape) by Judi Dench. Scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt has provided a dense forest lush with glistening leaves; the trees effortlessly shift into different patterns as the goal-oriented characters traipse through this wilderness like so many ids unleashed. ("I wish" and "I want" abound on the lips of these figures.) These same woods are barren and spooky by the second act -- the part of the show that famously moves into the grim territory beyond "happily ever after," which is where the puckish first act stops.
The first act isn't performed with the comic flair of the original, but it's still a charmer. The plot, knitted together with the help of a narrator (played by the lanky, twinkly-eyed John McMartin), is pretty thick, twisting familiar fairy tales around an invented fable involving a baker and his wife. That couple desperately wants a child, and the neighborhood witch will help them -- if they acquire a few things for her. (She's trying to undo a curse.)
Looking for a milky white cow leads the couple to Jack; dim young Jack is led to the beanstalk by the magic beans that he tearfully swaps for his cow as he sings the ballad "I Guess This Is Goodbye." The witch's wish list includes a red cape and yellow hair, things that bring Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel into play. (The witch keeps Rapunzel in a tower, which happens to be the spine of one of the oversize books Schmidt occasionally puts on the stage.) A pair of wolves -- up from one in the original -- prowl in. So do a pair of heroic, lusty princes, one for Cinderella, and one for Rapunzel.
Christopher Sieber and Gregg Edelman double as the wolves and princes, for obvious reasons. As a wolf -- the furry kind -- Sieber performs a drooling soft-shoe routine during "Hello, Little Girl" as he dreams of eating Little Red. As the mock-heroic princes, Sieber and Edelman sing with comic seriousness about the ordeals of courtly romance in the terrifically clever "Agony." The two princes remain the cutest things in a show rife with cute things.
But the performances don't always have the panache to match the gleeful irreverence of the first act's material. Part of the appeal of "Into the Woods" has always been the giddy way Lapine and Sondheim send up the fairy tale characters; you could easily imagine them cackling in the rehearsal room as the devilish ideas flew. In their hands, Cinderella keeps stumbling in her damned impractical shoes, and Little Red Ridinghood is such a tough kid you half think she could hold her own in the Bronx.
The edge has been softened here -- not by revised writing, but by the tone Lapine sets. Little Red Ridinghood's amusing savvy has been supplanted by a hint of actual childishness by casting a teenager (Molly Ephraim) in the role. As the Baker's Wife, Kerry O'Malley is earnest and driven, playing down the character's deadpan wit and emphasizing her desperation. And there's not much real temper to Williams's velvety witch, despite the fact that she flings sparks around with a large magic wand whenever she's peeved.
The second act, by design, is a different ballgame. All the stories have supposedly been neatly wrapped up -- except Jack has killed the giant, and now the giant's widow wants revenge. (Who knew he had a family? No one is alone, as the score's aching penultimate song says.) Sondheim's music, frisky in the first act, slows down and delves into the deeper registers. And that high-tech rendering of the giant -- which seems to be a keen calibration of Elaine J. McCarthy's projections, Brian MacDevitt's lights, and Dan Moses Schreier's rumbling sound design -- is put to powerful use.
Lapine doesn't do anything special to get you thinking about 9/11; it just happens. People die, the threat looms, everyone argues about how to respond, and someone asks, "When are things going to return to normal?"
The characters grow wiser and closer in this crisis environment, and the thoughtful performances finally hit their deep targets. As the Baker, Stephen DeRosa slides out of a self-absorbed funk and into something sharper, while Laura Benanti -- an appealing, reflective Cinderella -- emerges as the soul of the piece. Williams is not a bolt of lightning as the witch, but Lapine doesn't ask her to be; the character is now a little more a part of the gang and less a star apart. And Williams smoothly brings off what is probably the most boldly reinterpreted moment in the show: the once-fiery "The Last Midnight," sung at the peak of the crisis, downshifted to a torchy tempo, with the Witch crooning menacingly to the Baker's baby.
Casting plaintive-voiced performers such as Marylouise Burke (Jack's Mother) and Adam Wylie (a teenager playing Jack) is baffling, and just when the music is making a gorgeous statement about social harmony, the harmonies at the end of "No One Is Alone" are weakly sung. But musically, there isn't much else to complain about. The rest of the singing is solid, and the simple yet luminous finale -- "Children Will Listen" -- ought to give you shivers. You'd hardly know the show was miked, so delicate and minimal are the amplifications under Paul Gemignani's lovely musical direction.
John Carrafa supplies some sprightly choreography, particularly when the characters voyage into the woods to the bouncy title tune. And Susan Hilferty's costumes are fun without upstaging the characters. The entire production has a careful, purposeful feel; it's about as grown-up as "Into the Woods" can be.
Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by James Lapine. At the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250.