In "Into the Woods," the forest itself is the ultimate out-in-the-world experience, at once liberating and terrifying, a theme constant in fairy tales. But here, the tales mesh and collide, in a first act that moves toward happily-ever-after and a second act that takes a more realistic path. To be sure, the musical is a clever enterprise that in both acts begins to list on a sea of musical reprises and plot convolutions; if you've ever seen a just-OK production, chances are you know that.
But the Public's production pretty much pipes along, meticulously directed by Timothy Sheader with surprising little touches that put the old-fashioned tales in modern contexts — the mother of Jack, of beanstalk fame, for instance, appears in a full-length fur and waves a martini glass after Jack strikes it rich. And this "Into the Woods" is rich with talent both on stage and in the stagecraft; instead of suggesting a giant, which has been the case, it uses the cast brilliantly to give us a huge and rapacious beast.
It also turns the narrator into a little boy who's run into the woods himself after a fight with his father, a conceit that works nicely. The show hinges on the commands of a witch — a gloriously colorful performance by Donna Murphy, at the top of her game — who has cast a spell on a baker (Denis O'Hare, whose portrayal is oddly fuzzy and singing, shaky in the second act) and his wife (the film star Amy Adams, strong-voiced in an impressive New York stage debut).
Broadway veteran Chip Zien played the baker in the original production; now he's the mysterious old man who pops up to twist the plot further. He's lovely in the role, just like the other mainstays: Philadelphian Gideon Glick as a clueless and endearing Jack, Kristine Zbornik as his long-suffering mom, Jessie Mueller as Cinderella, Ivan Hernandez as both her prince and as Red Riding Hood's leering wolf, Tess Soltau as Rapunzel, and the irresistible Sarah Stiles as Red Riding Hood — a sort of blunt truth-teller of the show. The voice of the giant, an otherworldy display designed by Rachael Canning — is delivered spot-on, by Glenn Close.
The show is choreographed in a likable, loose-jointed jive by Liam Steel, who is credited as codirector; lit for maximum fairy-tale effect by Ben Stanton and costumed to a tee by Emily Rebholz. All in all, you could not choose to wander off into the woods with a finer assortment of pals.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
"Into the Woods" is presented by the Public Theater at the Delacorte in Central Park, New York City.