Sondheim and Lapine take Brothers Grimm tales a step further

In their folk tales of nearly two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm created some of the most enduring connections between ancient lore and modern literature. In ``Into the Woods,'' a new musical based on the mythic stories, songwriter Stephen Sondheim and playwright-director James Lapine re-forge that connection. The Brothers Grimm, we are reminded, had a political as well as literary purpose in their publishing venture - to unite a fragmented nation though its heritage. What the current authors have created is an entirely new work, one that not only wrests contemporary meaning from clich'ed fantasy, but embues the American musical with fresh theatrical innovation. Oh yes, they also have a lot of fun along the way. For what Sondheim and Lapine have wrought in their second and eagerly awaited venture (their first was the Pulitzer-winning musical ``Sunday in the Park with George'') is a work that is at once whimsical and, true to the original intent of folk tales, morally instructive.

``Into the Woods,'' a work-in-progress at the Old Globe Theatre here, comes across as part Brothers Grimm, part operetta, and part Bruno Bettelheim. What the psychologist urged in his book ``The Uses of Enchantment'' - namely the cultural necessity of myths that reveal humanity's fallibility as well as its ability to improve through experience - becomes in Sondheim's hands, if not the stuff of genius, then a work that is highly original.

The composer who brought his fiercely methodical intelligence to bear on such unlikely musical topics as pointillism (``Sunday''), Commodore Perry's visit to Japan (``Pacific Overtures''), and a 19th-century English murderer (``Sweeney Todd'') has turned his unsentimental gaze on the likes of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Red Riding Hood. The result is a score rich in the composer's usually sophisticated, if astringent, marriages of music and words, and a story mischievous and - Sondheim fans, are you sitting down? - unintellectual.

Indeed, ``Into the Woods'' incorporates as much farce as the composer has employed since ``A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'' Although not as technically innovative as ``Sunday,'' ``Into the Woods'' continues the composer's favorite themes - disconnectedness and (no pun intended) disenchantment.

This time the authors intertwine fairy tales - Red Riding Hood befriends Jack; Cinderella's Prince is brother to Rapunzel's Prince - and add a few au courant touches of their own. The wicked witch, for example, is a punked-out assault victim with a questionable sexual orientation. But the nub of this purposefully plot-heavy show, in which characters bound on and off stage with the frequency of a bedroom farce, is entirely of the authors' own making. A baker and his wife live under a witch's curse which can be removed only by appeasing her with four objects - Jack's cow, a lock of Rapunzel's hair, Red Riding Hood's cape, and - what else? - Cinderella's slipper. Sondheim has described this quest device as one that requires every character ``to cheat a little.'' Sings the witch, ``Know what's evil? Nice people's lies.'' The first act comes to its close with the finale ``[Happily] Ever After''; the darker second act examines the consequences of the original indiscretions and hammers home Sondheim's theme: ``The characters have to band together and make amends for what they did.''

Characters that in the Brothers Grimm are one-dimensional are, in this musical, full-fleshed and subject to the vagaries of human whims. The predominant passion is desire, and Sondheim molds and shapes it into the company's collective wail, ``I wish.'' In the show's lengthy prologue, entitled ``Into the Woods,'' Cinderella, Jack, and the Baker express their individual wants in a triple soliloquy built on a repeating cycle of three words.

Athough the tales conclude in the first act with happily-ever-after endings, Cinderella, Jack, and the Baker are still plagued by unsatisfied desires. Another trek into the forest is needed. At the end of this second Oz-like quest, the fantasy characters learn a very human lesson: ``It takes more than self-reliance, it takes all of us.''

This emphasis on community responsibility, reminiscent of the theme of the connectedness in ``Sunday,'' has resulted in an ensemble production both on and off the stage. Several characters play more than one role, and the company is seamless and top-drawer. Ellen Foley as the witch and Chip Zien as the Baker are standouts, and their solo numbers - ``Boom Crunch'' and ``No More'' - are two of the evening's musical highlights. Behind the scenes, Sondheim has reassembled nearly his entire crew from ``Sunday,'' including Tony Straiges (set design) Patricia Zipprodt (costumes), and Richard Nelson (lighting). Newcomer Micheal Holten (sound design) literally shakes the rafters with his giant's footsteps.

Despite a few too many plot twists (the work is still being shaped and trimmed here), ``Into the Woods'' is no mere work-in-progress, but a full-fledged and fresh invitation to musical reverie that begins with one of the oldest lines known to man, ``Once upon a time.'' It's at the Old Globe through Jan. 11.

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