Stephen Sondheim is not everybody's idea of someone to tell you bedtime stories.
But in "Into the Woods," a musical based on Grimm's fairy tales, the lyricist-composer of such acid, bittersweet shows as "Company," "Follies," and "Sweeney Todd" has written a spellbinding score, witty enough to make old stories fresh for adults, lovely enough to enchant youngsters.
You know that "Into the Woods" is wizardry as soon as you see Tony Straiges' bewitching sets, which move as magically as dreams. And if you can resist its luscious star, Bernadette Peters, you are beyond the help of potions and spells. (Go directly to "Starlight Express." Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.)
Peters, whom every sensible person must adore, is central to James Lapine's book, which tells the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, The Baker's Wife and Rapunzel concurrently. It is like making half a dozen plates dance on top of spinning poles, which Lapine does with finesse.
Many of these stories hinge on ancient fears about "the weaker sex." Who but Peters could make even a wicked witch a droll image of troubled motherhood?
In the second act the characters discover that living happily ever after ain't easy. It is equally funny but more sober in spirit, a balancing act greatly aided by Peters' tongue-in-cheek warmth and her beguiling voice.
Sondheim's music weaves in and out of the dialogue seamlessly. At times it is a bouncy cushion for his ingenious lyrics (much less self-conscious than in some of his work). At other times the music is rhapsodic, particularly in a haunting refrain for Rapunzel, several glorious ensemble numbers, and a ravishing duet for two princes.
Some of the most evocative music recalls the more tender moments in "Sunday in the Park With George," as does a touching lyric like "Children can only grow / From something you love / To something you lose."
The cast is perfection. Joanna Gleason, whom sensible people are learning to adore, is funny and moving as the baker's wife. Chip Zien, an actor who has grown greatly, is appealing as her hapless husband. It is hard to imagine a more dashing, vocally seductive prince than Robert Westenberg (though his fellow prince, Chuck Wagner, is a good match).
Danielle Ferland is hilarious as a nasty Red Ridinghood, Tom Aldredge powerful in the tricky role of the narrator, Ben Wright wonderfully innocent as Jack. Kim Crosby is a captivating Cinderella, Barbara Bryne is expectedly funny as Jack's long-suffering mother.
Ann Hould-Ward's costumes have gorgeous shapes and colors. Richard Nelson's wondrous lighting and Jonathan Tunick's elegant orchestrations also add to the spell.
Unlike some current shows, which belong in Vegas or Disneyland, "Into the Woods" is genuine musical theater, an evening of total enchantment.
The moon has a dark side, and so do fairy tales. It is the darker side of both that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine are exploring in their new musical, "Into the Woods," which opened last night, once upon a time, at the Martin Beck Theater.
At first the musical seems a collection of fairy tales with a certain difference - most are familiar, some are Grimm and many are made grimmer.
There are Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, a brace of assorted Princes (as one explains, "I was brought up to be charming, not sincere"), Jack the Giant-killer, Rapunzel and, of course, a Witch.
And there is also a Baker and a Baker's Wife, who want nothing more than to have a child, and if you don't remember the fairy tale about the Baker and his Wife, don't worry. They are the pure invention of James Lapine's always inventive book.
It is the adroitness of this book that threads all those various threads together and makes an ingeniously interlocked fabric from the various tales. And, naturally, they all end happily ever after. Don't they?
Well, only until after the intermission. Then a certain degree of bitterness intervenes as reality intrudes. "Into the Woods" suffers the ravages of a moral forest fire, not to mention the trampling of a real giant.
The earlier Sondheim/Lapine musical, "Sunday in the Park with George," had a rather similar two-act "masque, anti-masque" structure, but what failed so pompously, pretentiously and predictably in the earlier musical, narrowly, but triumphantly, works here.
Each act has a certain parallelism to it - details are oddly echoed in a different emotional key, with a different dramatic coloring.
Even the zaniness of the first act takes care to stress not only a high degree of sophisticated irony, but also the violence and savagery that have traditionally existed in fairy tales but that we, in modern, Disneyesque times, have tended to bowdlerize.
In the second, comeuppance act, we even have death, murder, adultery and the problem of pain. Yet Lapine and Sondheim are neither bleak nor pessimistic about the human comedy, or even the human condition. Despite all failures and mistakes, betrayals and departures, they insist that: "No One is Alone."
Sondheim has long abandoned writing conventional, common or garden variety Broadway musicals, and obviously "Into the Woods" is not going to go up the common or garden path.
He may be ready to tackle the problem of pain, but he still has the problem of music - the problem of finding an acceptably literate musical language between pop and pop opera, between rock and a hard place.
He has abandoned the furtive passes he made at Puccinian Lloyd Webber lyricism in "Sunday in the Park," and returned to the cooler, crisper, less expansive, more urgently dramatic language of his own "Sweeney Todd."
The melodies are here very much shaped by the lyrics - the word - the musical word, that is - takes precedence over the actual music, forming it and shaping it to its own sense.
This spare, laconic score, with Jonathan Tunick's succinct orchestrations, may not please everyone - it's a long way from "Oklahoma!" - but I find it exciting in its acceptance of simplicity, at times almost minimalist simplicity, and its quest for an acceptable musical usage to bridge the threatening gap between Broadway and its future.
The lyrics here are dazzling. Note, for example, how many rhymes for "ick" Sondheim can find with a flick, and how he can construct them into brilliantly cerebral poetry.
Lapine's staging seems more confident than it was in "Sunday in the Park," with smoother transitions and sharper performances, although in the former he was presumably much helped by the choreographer Lar Lubovitch, credited with the "musical staging."
The real success of the production team goes to the settings, designed by Tony Straiges. With etching-like front-cloths of fairy-tale castles and cottages, and wonderful bosky, sylvan woodland scenery that might have been inspired by the now textbook forest settings of the French designer Jean Carzou of some 30 years back, "Into the Woods" is a scenic trip. And the costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are also imaginative and vigorous.
Unusually, perhaps, for a Broadway musical, "Into the Woods" lacks a star role, although Bernadette Peters, as the most calculating witch to come down the pike since "Macbeth," with her street-smart brittle glitter unquestionably offers a star performance.
Other particularly lovely performances come from a warily resourceful Joanna Gleason and a chirpily honest Chip Zien as the Baker couple, Robert Westenberg handsomely stuffed as the wolfish Prince, Kim Crosby as a knowing Cinderella, and Barbara Bryne as a reluctant hero's mother.
"Into the Woods" takes a new look at adult fairy tales and lunar romance. June doesn't have to rhyme with moon anymore, and there isn't a tune to go with it. I found it refreshing.
When Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood and their fairy-tale friends venture into the woods in the new Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, you can be sure that they won't miss the subconscious forest for the picturesque trees. The characters of ''Into the Woods'' may be figures from children's literature, but their journey is the same painful, existential one taken by so many adults in Sondheim musicals past.
Like the middle-aged showbiz cynics who return to their haunted youths in ''Follies'' and ''Merrily We Roll Along,'' or the contemporary descendant who revisits Georges Seurat's hallowed park in ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' or the lovers who court in a nocturnal Scandinavian birch forest in ''A Little Night Music,'' Cinderella and company travel into a dark, enchanted wilderness to discover who they are and how they might grow up and overcome the eternal, terrifying plight of being alone. To hear ''No One Is Alone,'' the cathartic and beautiful final song of ''Into the Woods,'' is to be overwhelmed once more by the continuity of one of the American theater's most extraordinary songwriting careers. The lyric's terrifying opening admonition - ''Mother cannot guide you'' - sends one reeling back three decades to the volcanic finale of ''Gypsy,'' in which the mother played by Ethel Merman at last cast her children into the woods of adulthood with the angry outburst, ''Mama's got to let go!''
The material of ''Into the Woods'' is potent stuff - as old as time, or at least as old as fairy tales. One needn't necessarily have read Bruno Bettelheim's classic Freudian analysis to realize that, in remaking Grimm stories, Mr. Sondheim's lyrics and Mr. Lapine's book tap into the psychological mother lode from which so much of life and literature spring. What is harder to explain is why the show at the Martin Beck, though touching both of its authors' past themes at their primal source, is less harrowing than, say, ''Sweeney Todd,'' which incorporated its own Sondheim variations on ''Rapunzel'' and ''Hansel and Gretel,'' and less moving than ''Sunday in the Park,'' which made related points about children and art and gnarled family trees through similarly Pirandellian means.
To understand how much ''Into the Woods'' disappoints, one must first appreciate its considerable ambitions and pleasures. The authors have not just tried to match the Grimms but to top them. In Mr. Lapine's book for Act I, Cinderella (Kim Crosby), Little Red Ridinghood (Danielle Ferland) and the giant-killing Jack (Ben Wright) join two newly invented characters reminiscent of ''Sunday in the Park,'' a childless baker (Chip Zien) and his wife (Joanna Gleason), in an intricate tripartite plot also yanking together one witch (Bernadette Peters), one wolf (Robert Westenberg), two princes (Mr. Westenberg and Chuck Wagner) and countless parents and stepparents. Although the principal characters, true to their Grimm prototypes, gain new wisdom in the woods, their pre-intermission happy endings hardly deliver the promised eternal ''tenderness and laughter.'' In Act II, everyone is jolted into the woods again - this time not to cope with the pubescent traumas symbolized by beanstalks and carnivorous wolves but with such adult catastrophes as unrequited passion, moral cowardice, smashed marriages and the deaths of loved ones.
The conception is brilliant, and sometimes the execution lives up to it. Mr. Sondheim has as much fun as one expects with his wicked airing of the subtext of the old tales: Mr. Westenberg's rakishly sexual wolf sings, ''There's no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you're talking to your meal.'' Mr. Lapine's script has its own bright jokes, many of them belonging to the production's two performing finds - the sassy Ms. Ferland, whose Lolita-like Red Ridinghood evolves into a ferocious little fox in a wolf stole, and the tender Ms. Crosby, whose insecure, weak-kneed Cinderella has a lovely, comic fragility that recalls the young Paula Prentiss. Only when Barbara Bryne is mugging campily as Jack's mother does the humor compromise the production's fundamental belief in grave, ontological fairy-tale magic. The designer, Tony Straiges, transports us from a mock-proscenium set redolent of 19th-century picturebook illustration into a thick, asymetrical, Sendakesque woods whose Rorschach patterns, eerily lighted by Richard Nelson, keep shifting to reveal hidden spirits and demons.
Unfortunately, the book is as wildly overgrown as the forest. Though the structure of ''Into the Woods'' leans on Sondheim trademarks - puzzles and scavenger hunts - its architecture has not been ingeniously worked out in Mr. Lapine's script. Perhaps the enterprise could use less art and more craft. The interlocking stories, coincidences, surprise reunions and close calls do not fall gracefully into farcical place as they did in the theatrically equivalent books for ''A Little Night Music'' and ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'' Instead, the various narrative jigsaw pieces often prove either cryptic or absent, and, with the aid of a sort of post-modernist anti-narrator (Tom Aldredge), they must finally be patched together to achieve a measure of coherence.
The confusion breeds stasis; the show stands still during the huffing and puffing of voluminous plot information. Worse, the convoluted story has a strangulating effect on the musical's two essential sources of emotional power, its people and its score. The characters are at such frantic mercy of the plot that they never gather the substance required to make us care, as we must, about their Act II dilemmas of conscience, connectedness and loss. This is often true even of the musical's real leads, the baker and his wife, in spite of a good performance by Mr. Zien, who is funnier than his wimpy Chico Marx costume promises, and a wonderful one by Ms. Gleason, whose intentionally anachronistic suburban matron blossoms in fairy-tale land.
Mr. Sondheim's numerous songs, though often outfitted with incomparably clever lyrics, sometimes seem as truncated as the characters, as if they were chopped off just when they got going to make way for the latest perambulations of the book. With the exception of ''No One Is Alone,'' the most effective songs are directly tied to the plot (as in the extended title number, a gloss on ''A Weekend in the Country'' in ''Night Music'') or are their own self-contained jokes (as in ''Agony,'' a duet for philandering princes).
Too many of the other songs bring the action to a halt, announcing the characters' dawning self-knowledge didactically (''You've learned . . . something you never knew'') rather than dramatizing it. And sometimes the soliloquies describing psychological change are written in interchangeable language, as if the characters were as vaguely generic to Mr. Sondheim as they are to the audience. Time and second hearings always tell with a Sondheim score, but this one, its atypically muted Jonathan Tunick orchestrations included, makes the mildest first impression of them all.
The work's weaknesses and strengths alike are emblemized by the predicament of Ms. Peters, who is very funny as a cronish, crooked-finger witch but whose connection to the many plots is so tenuously gerrymandered that she is assigned a sermonizing song in Act II for no apparent reason other than her billing. Without this star, who delivers her numbers with enough force to bring down houses (whether theaters or 'little pigs'), ''Into the Woods'' would be a lesser evening, but the paradoxical price for her appearance is a deflatingly literal-minded explication of the musical's message (and of the witch's character), not to mention overlength.
There is enough to look at and think about, however, that the overlength rarely induces tedium. As director, Mr. Lapine may make little call on the services of his musical stager, Lar Lubovitch, but the tales keep sprinting on stage and into the auditorium. The result is unique to its composer's canon - the first Sondheim musical whose dark thematic underside is as accessible as its jolly storytelling surface. ''Into the Woods'' may be just the tempting, unthreatening show to lead new audiences to an artist who usually lures theatergoers far deeper, and far more dangerously, into the woods.