BALTIMORE — The Wolf in Grandmother’s bed doesn’t seem quite so big and bad anymore. No, like other malicious aspects of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fractured fairy-tale musical, “Into the Woods,” the wolf seems as if he’s been defanged in the disappointingly clawless revival at Center Stage.
Milky White, the adorable cow to which Jack of beanstalk fame is so devoted, no longer keels over and croaks, as she had in past versions of this 1987 musical. Other of the show’s grotesquely funny exhibitions of the dark serendipity of children’s stories — such as the bloody amputation of parts of the feet of Cinderella’s rivals as their craven mother tries to stuff them into the glass slipper — are obscured from view as well in director Mark Lamos’s all-too-delicate treatment.
Some of the joys do remain: in the top-drawer portrayals by Dana Steingold, as a self-possessed Little Red Ridinghood with the nerve of a school of Navy SEALs; Justin Scott Brown, playing a boyishly winning Jack; and Jenny Latimer, imbuing Cinderella with a fetchingly ironic self-awareness. And agility abounds in Allen Moyer’s roll-away set pieces, which keep the proceedings moving while reinforcing the improvisatory sensation conveyed through the ever more intertwining subplots.
Sondheim’s riddle-racked score, prickly at times, consoling at others, retains its disarming power. But the mischievous musical, with the harrowing trials of fairy-tale characters assigned modern worries and ambivalences, has lost its dark way in the woods. It’s a far more, er, wicked evening than Lamos’s visually well-defined production allows. Even the framing device he’s invented — turning a narrator played by Jeffrey Denman into a latter-day Geppetto — attempts too obsessively to impose order on a show that’s meant to unsettle us with its descent into chaos.
The wonderful, if sometimes muddy, conceit of “Into the Woods” means that the musical seems to begin twice. Act 1 binds the comic travails in such touchstone tales as those of Red Ridinghood, Jack, Cinderella and Rapunzel, as the characters meet in the forest in pursuit of their hopes and desires. Sondheim and Lapine have added a story of their own devising, that of a childless Baker (Erik Liberman) and his wife (Danielle Ferland), while also developing the character of a peevish witch (Lauren Kennedy), whose inscrutable motives are not only universally misunderstood but also lead some of the others into danger.
Happily ever after, though, only lasts here through intermission. Act 2 sends the characters back into the woods after they discover that having one’s prayers answered isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be: “Into the Woods” is about the utterly confounding arithmetic of life, the additions of love and subtractions of pain that we first convey to our children via the metaphors of stories.
“Wishes may bring problems / Such that you regret them / Better that, though / Than to never get them,” goes the marvelous lyric of the opening second-act song, “Ever After,” a number that expresses through these make-believe figures some of the real heartbreak of being human. It’s in the increasingly desperate circumstances of Act 2 that Lamos’s approach fares least satisfyingly; as a giant runs roughshod over the kingdom and people begin dying, the production fails to take the required supple emotional hold. Although the final songs — “No More” and “No One Is Alone” — are profound articulations of the responsibilities we have for one another, few of the characters here manage to elicit a comparable impression of their own complexity.
Some of the difficulty lies in the casting. The heart of the show belongs to the Baker and his wife; the wish for a child is the musical’s most accessible. The relationship, though, between Liberman and Ferland (she played Red Ridinghood to adorable effect in the original Broadway production) never rises to the necessary warmth. One should feel far more piercingly the final blow the baker suffers.
It should be noted that even if the orchestra sounds anemic, the voices here are excellent and the diction still better: You hear every meticulously chosen Sondheim lyric. That’s the best news for parents seeking to introduce their offspring to this safer handling of a work by a singular American theater composer. To paraphrase the master himself: On this occasion children will listen, and listen good.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Mark Lamos. Sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Candice Donnelly; choreography, Sean Curran; lighting, Robert Wierzel; music direction, Wayne Barker; sound, Zachary Williamson. With Nik Walker, Robert Lenzi, Alma Cuervo, Cheryl Stern, Jeremy Lawrence. About 2½ hours. Through April 15 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.