`Into the Woods': a fairy tale for adults. Sondheim's music charms while plots take new twists

Into the Woods Musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book and direction by James Lapine. Starring Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Tom Aldredge, and Robert Westenberg.

The fairy-tale folk of ``Into the Woods'' live conditionally rather than happily ever after. Two or three of them don't make it to the finale of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical at the Martin Beck Theatre. The survivors learn to cope. They come to terms and together. Instead of lamenting assorted disappointments, they find comfort in ``No One Is Alone,'' one of Mr. Sondheim's most moving contributions as composer-lyricist. Indeed, for all its disenchantments, this manages to be an enchanted musical evening.

``Into the Woods'' mingles two rewritten Grimm fairy tales - ``Cinderella'' and ``Jack and the Beanstalk'' - with a Lapine original about a Baker and his Wife (Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason). The couple make a complex deal with their Witch neighbor (Bernadette Peters) to overcome their childlessness.

In the collage of revisionist plots, Cinderella (Kim Crosby) loses a philandering Prince Charming (Robert Westenberg, who also plays the Wolf); Rapunzel suffers a similar fate and goes mad before being squashed under the Giant's foot; the Baker's Wife is also trodden to death by the roaring but unseen monster (Merle Louise). Grim as these catastrophes are by any account, they drive the remaining characters to form the mutual-support group which Lapine and Sondheim retrieve from the enthralling woods.

The tongue-in-cheek fairy tale for grown-ups can be satirically amusing with its wayward notions. Little Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland) is a no-nonsense brat with a knife at the ready. Jack (Ben Wright) would make Simple Simon look like an overachiever, but he finds the courage for his gigantic encounter. Cinderella's Prince is an operetta throwback, a royal who can explain himself at one point with ``I've been raised to be charming, not sincere.''

As the Witch, Miss Peters makes her entrance in a definitive fright wig and Press-On talons. The Witch regains her looks when she loses her sorcerous powers - a happy metamorphosis for all. The star scores powerfully in such numbers as ``Stay With Me'' and ``Lament.''

The Sondheim score (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) is a triumph of witty verse, intricate harmonies, and lilting melodies. Whether in solos, duets, or ensembles, the singing actors handle their responsibilities impeccably under Paul Gemignani's musical direction. In a mostly nonsinging role, Tom Aldredge doubles handily as the laconic narrator and a not so mysterious Mystery Man.

For an environmental touch, birdsong greets the assembling audience at the Martin Beck and filters through the intermission. Tony Straiges has designed a setting, sunnily or eerily lighted by Richard Nelson, that begins with the picture-book scenery of the prologue and dissolves into the overgrown evergreenery of the forest depths. Credit Alan Stieb and James Brousseau for the Giant's thunderous footfalls preceding Mr. Straiges's second-act coup de th'e^atre. Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward's picturesque costumes can be quaint or sophisticated as occasion demands. But when all is said and sung, it is the Sondheim score that charms the listener.

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