In a time when the most powerful medium, television, hardly celebrates human virtues, and perhaps least of all wit and class, we should be grateful for Stephen Sondheim. (I hasten to add that by class I mean nothing to do with financial status, but rather the ability to handle situations with grace, generosity and good nature.)

For fans, it will suffice that The Arlington Players' production of his most recent Broadway hit, "Into the Woods," is spectacular.

For those who still have the treat of a first Sondheim musical in store, here is the sort of thing you'll see in Arlington.

"Into the Woods" is a musical in which Sondheim takes us into a forest and there retells several well-known children's stories, simultaneously, letting them sometimes invade each other. Sondheim boldly goes beyond the story endings that we know: The Baker and his wife have a son, who turns out to be a lot of work; Cinderella and her prince lose the first flush of romance, as do Rapunzel and her prince; Jack has traded some of his beans for a goose that lays golden eggs, and the Giant's wife will be coming down for revenge. In other words, he suggests a modern postscript.

On your left is the home of Cinderella (Elizabeth Eck, utterly charming throughout), her stepmother (Sharon Golden) and her two stepsisters, Lucinda (Kathryn Lambert) and Florinda (Perry Payne). The wicked sisters are outrageously played -- quite in keeping with the ladies' willingness to part with toes and whole parts of their feet to fit into the famous missing slipper. Naturally, the Steward (the stalwart David Purdy) is obliged to ask Cinderella to try on the bloody slipper.

On your right is the humble cottage of Jack (of beanstalk renown). Patrick M. Boyd does a grand job with Jack, a young man several dozen beans short of a pound in the brains department. Gay Hill as his mother is a woman who meets life against the odds, nevertheless exuding a jolliness that is nearly inspirational. Jack has one friend, a cow, whom he loves but which his mother insists he take to market to sell, as they are nearly destitute.

Center stage is the home of the Baker (Buzz Mauro) and his wife (Mary Gjurich), who are desperate for a child. They happen to live next door to a Witch (Gilly Conklin) with a fabulous garden, who devises this scheme: If in 24 hours they can bring her a white cow, a bright red cape, a silver slipper and a hunk of hair the color of corn, she will give them a child. Seem unlikely?

We already have the slipper and the cow, and now Little Red Riding Hood (Annette Mooney Wasno, who is hilarious) arrives at the Baker's cottage to fill up her basket for a trip into the woods to visit Grandma.

She soon meets the Wolf (Gregory Gjurich, here a reckless roue, who later plays a precious and pompous Rapunzel's prince -- a lovely set of contrasting roles). The Wolf's song, "Hello, Little Girl," is as funny as may be anticipated from the title.

Cinderella's prince (a riotous study in arrogance by Michael Forrest) meets up with Rapunzel's prince in the forest and they sing "Agony," a clever duet that has much to say about men for whom the chase is everything, who are at their best in pursuit of the unattainable.

The Baker and his wife have considerable difficulty gathering all the items for the Witch (there is an aspect of the treasure hunt about all this) and finally realize that they are stronger working together, in the musical's only true love ballad, "It Takes Two." Mauro and Mary Gjurich give beautiful performances.

The second act of the show takes a new tone: The Giant's wife (Liz Isbell) turns up looking for Jack for revenge, squishing homes and characters underfoot as she goes.

A bittersweet tone comes into the songs and lyrics, and unexpected subjects, such as fear and loneliness, are dealt with. Meanwhile, other characters pass fleetingly by: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and even stray Dwarfs.

Thus, Sondheim passes beyond the archetypal "moral" of the original fairy tales and gives a contemporary treatment to the same issues. The musical ends with the haunting "No One is Alone" and the finale, "Children Will Listen."

The orchestra is marvelous; the set by Lou Stancari and costumes by Debi Tesser extremely interesting; and the whole is lovingly directed by Bruce Tworkin. A truly lovely experience it is.

The Arlington Players, at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center, Second St. N., Arlington. Through Saturday. For tickets call 549-1063.