When Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" opened on Broadway 15 years ago, people were disturbed by the disparity between the first act, which had wit, sparkle and magic, and the second, which was glum. James Lapine, who directed the original production as well as the current revival, has figured out how to eliminate this disparity. Here he has found a single tone for everything: It is coarse from start to finish. Admittedly an efficient strategy, it does not necessarily help this delicate show, for which Lapine also wrote the book. "Into the Woods" is a collection of fairy tales held together by the idea that the characters risk journeys into the forest in search of deeper truths. In this version, even characters who do not normally venture into the woods (such as Cinderella) go there for solace or wisdom. Their stories all become interconnected, their fates linked. In the first act, this weaving together of disparate plots and characters seems clever and interesting. The second is dominated by the specter of a lady giant, whose husband has been killed by Jack (of Beanstalk fame). She has come to Earth seeking revenge. The first act assures us that happy endings are possible, the second that they're unlikely. Much of Sondheim's score has an artful innocence about it, like the title song, which seems as if it should accompany some children's game. The writing for the most part is witty - particularly "Agony," the duet for two handsome princes. The score also has some of Sondheim's most haunting songs, especially "Children Will Listen."
The show has always had its awkward moments, but the original cast was so perfect you could easily overlook them. With a few exceptions, that cannot be said of the current group, which is, for the most part, charmless. The exceptions are Laura Benanti, who is a totally enchanting Cinderella; Gregg Edelman, who has the requisite innocence to offset Prince Charming's arrogance, and Marylouise Burke, who makes Jack's mother both poignant and comic. Vanessa Williams is funny when heavily made up as the Witch. But when she doffs this guise and becomes glamorous, she loses any sense of character. She sings "Children Will Listen" as if it were part of a nightclub act. John McMartin makes a graceful, funny narrator, but he does not convey the gravity of the material. For some other cast members, the delivery is so lacking in nuance that you find yourself wondering if Sondheim really could have written lyrics that once sounded artfully naive but now sound inapt. Douglas Schmidt's sets convey a sense of wonder, elegantly lit by Brian McDevitt. Susan Hilferty's costumes are flavorful. In the earlier production, Jack's cow was a wooden prop. Here, it's a vaudeville act, with a costumed Chad Kimball skillfully manipulating its front and hindquarters. The old cow did not deflect attention from the characters around him. The new one gets most of the laughs. The difference is telling. The original "Into the Woods" reflected a desire to dig into these ancient stories to find their meaning. The revival seems merely a bid for the lucrative family market on post-Disney Broadway.
It sure is revival time on Broadway, and last night at the Broadhurst Theatre we were once more happily lured "Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's ornate fairy-tale thicket for grown-ups.
Not much has changed - it is as bright, intriguing, funny, complex, puzzling, charming, slightly preachy and musically elaborate as ever.
And with a sinuous and intensely glamorous Vanessa Williams doing a sassy star-turn in place of the perkier Bernadette Peters, and a sweetly geriatric John McMartin shuffling his way through as the Narrator, the cast, as a whole, holds its own with the past.
It is now nearly 25 years since we first journeyed this way, accompanied by a malicious witch, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack the Giant-killer, Rapunzel, a couple of smug Princes and Sondheim's own poor little Baker and his Wife, who long for a child.
When "Into the Woods" was new, I felt it represented a fresh confidence and assurance in Sondheim - in his music, that is, since his lyrics were always peerless.
The interweaving fairy stories and the nutty scavenger hunt for the articles that enable the childless Baker and his Wife to conceive revolve around sound moral precepts of parenthood and the acquisition of wisdom.
A 1990 London production by Richard Jones and Richard Hudson proved challenging and innovative, but Lapine's second shot at direction showed no such modernity. This was evident as soon as the curtain rose on Douglas W. Schmidt's attractive but conventional scenery.
But the effective staging is fine - what with its adaptable woodland settings scurrying hither and thither like the Birnam Wood in "Macbeth" - and the Witch's sudden transformation rivals that of the Beast-into-Prince stunt in "Beauty and the Beast."
Williams, as shown from her appearance in "The Kiss of the Spider Woman," is a born Broadway star.
So, too, in his delightfully casual way, is McMartin, who gets more delicious as the years pass by. His sly pleasure in his own deft and daft sorcery is a joy.
Laura Benanti makes a wary, no-nonsense Cinderella, Stephen DeRosa a sweetly harassed Baker, while Kerry O'Malley proves shrewdly commonsensical as his Wife and Adam Wylie is a naively cunning Jack of bean fame.
Christopher Sieber and particularly Greg Edelman are appropriately pompous and devious as the assorted Princes and Wolves, and Molly Ephraim and Melissa Dye appear cutely knowing as Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, respectively.
And then there's Chad Kimball, funny and touching as Milky-White, the Cow. Cows don't come any better than this, even in "Oklahoma!"
A bright and beckoning path cuts through the fairy-tale thicket of whimsy and woe that is ''Into the Woods,'' the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that opened last night in a new revival at the Broadhurst Theater.
This path is no trail of bread crumbs. It is Mr. Sondheim's score, which now shows every sign of enduring into happily-ever-after posterity, that keeps leading you onward in a show that does not inspire confidence on all levels. Trust in Mr. Sondheim, though. Follow the music. It will take you somewhere wonderful.
It should probably come as no surprise that ''Into the Woods,'' first staged on Broadway only 15 years ago, remains as mixed a blessing as the fulfilled wishes of the show's ever-dissatisfied characters. Mr. Sondheim has written songs that are indeed like fairy tales in their surface simplicity and echoing depths.
Yet as is often the case with this composer, what surrounds the music only occasionally touches the same levels of complexity. Mr. Sondheim's very element is ambivalence. This is not, unfortunately, the easiest mood to match in the broadly drawn world of musical comedy.
Not that Mr. Lapine -- now, as then, the writer of the show's book and its director -- doesn't provide intellectual ambition and theatrical flair. This latest, somewhat revised incarnation of ''Into the Woods'' has charming story-book scenery (by Douglas W. Schmidt), a beautiful star (Vanessa Williams), optical illusions and a winsome dancing cow (Chad Kimball) to delight the eye.
The evening also features two deliciously drawn performances from Laura Benanti (as Cinderella) and Gregg Edelman (as her Prince) that capture exactly the right balance of archness and anxiety. And there are moments that pierce the heart as no other musical this season does.
Nonetheless, the original problems of ''Into the Woods'' persist. Even by the generous standards of magic forests, the woods are awfully crowded. Among its other fairy-tale archetypes: Rapunzel (Melissa Dye); Jack the Giant Killer (Adam Wylie) and his critical mother (a dithery Marylouise Burke); Little Red Riding Hood (Molly Ephraim), plus the custom-made additions of a childless Baker (Stephen DeRosa) and his Wife (Kerry O'Malley).
The plot sends them on intersecting journeys in which they first collide and then learn to cooperate when they are threatened by a vengeful Giantess (seen as a shadow with a voice supplied by Judi Dench, if you please). Acting as arbitrator and commentator are a Witch (Ms. Williams) and a narrator (John McMartin).
Shades of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim dog the characters' footsteps. Their tales resonate with such mythic-psychiatric staples as abandonment fears, Oedipal loves and hatreds and the romance of the unattainable. What they discover recalls an earlier Sondheim lyric (from ''Do I Hear a Waltz?''): ''Happy endings can spring a leak/Ever after can mean one week.'' ''Woods'' deals with learning to live with this reality.
That's a lot of ground to cover, even in the reverberant shorthand of fairy-tale symbolism. And Mr. Lapine's book, while making fun of its own excesses, keeps piling on details that are more distracting than illuminating with subplots swooping in from left field.
It's not that the show's intentions aren't clear. It's just that themes are demonstrated in so many ways that they lose impact through repetition and overstatement. And the vagaries of casting determine which characters you're going to focus on at the expense of the others.
In the 1987 production it was the venturesome Baker's Wife, astutely played by Joanna Gleason, who became the show's center. This revival has a winning if less fully defined Baker's Wife in the person of Ms. O'Malley, and she is nicely partnered by a low-key Mr. DeRosa.
But it is Cinderella and her Prince who dominate this ''Woods,'' suggesting Mr. Sondheim's ''Company'' rewritten by the Brothers Grimm. The self-possessed Ms. Benanti sings like an angel. But her character is convincingly of this earth, combining poise and bewilderment as Cinderella lands the Prince she discovers she doesn't really want.
Like Ms. Benanti, Mr. Edelman gives you character and cartoon in one breath. His fatuous Prince is an expertly rendered medley of vague heroic flourishes with a Nelson Eddy tenor to match. (It is perfectly put to use in ''Agony,'' a witty ode to obscure objects of desire performed with Christopher Sieber.)
Ms. Williams is a more qualified success as the Witch, who is transformed from crone-like grotesqueness into dazzling beauty. (The latter incarnation is not a stretch.) She sings appealingly, and she is excellent in conveying the cool, pragmatist side of her character when crisis looms.
What she doesn't provide is the stridency needed to bring numbers like ''The Last Midnight'' to a Broadway-size climax. (Bernadette Peters, who created the role, had no problems in that regard.) Still, the Witch has always been a confusing character, more of a stretched-out guest star turn than a completely realized leading lady.
Since its healthy initial Broadway run, ''Into the Woods'' has become the most performed of the shows for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, popular among school, church and community theaters. Accordingly, for its second Broadway version its potential as family entertainment has been emphasized, though how many young children will sit through its nearly three hours of shifting moods is questionable.
Mr. Schmidt's scenery, equaled in visual appeal by Susan Hilferty's crazy-quilt costumes, ingeniously uses outsize pop-up books to establish the different story lines. There is sprightly new choreography by John Caraffa.
The casting of Mr. Wylie and Molly Ephraim, two very young-looking teenagers, is presumably intended to invite a sense of identification among young audience members. (The sexual aspects of Red's encounter with the Big Bad Wolf have pretty much vanished.)
The reliable Mr. McMartin plays the narrator a bit in the manner of the children's show host Mr. Rogers. In a sense this ''Woods'' is a gentrified version of ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' a place for those who like their instructive porridge served with Champagne. The humor swings between dry Sondheimesque urbanity and a goofiness that recalls the ''Fractured Fairy Tales'' of the old ''Rocky and Bullwinkle'' shows.
But it doesn't really fit together. Besides Ms. Benanti and Mr. Edelman, only Jack's puppet-headed cow, a charming creature that at moments brings to mind the terrified animals of ''Guernica,'' is entirely successful in bridging the gaps in tone.
It is when ''Into the Woods'' simply sings -- in conflict-laced arrangements orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick with musical direction by Paul Gemignani -- that you float into an enchanted world whose pleasures and fears bear an only mildly exaggerated relationship to those of everyday life.
Listen to Ms. Williams and Ms. Dye crooning in parent-child disharmony in ''Our Little World'' (the one new addition to the 1987 roster of songs). Or Ms. O'Malley on impossible choices in ''Moments in the Woods.'' Or the quartet ''No One Is Alone,'' a song (like ''Not While I'm Around'' from ''Sweeney Todd'') in which solace is all the more poignant for being only provisional.
In such numbers, Mr. Sondheim always manages to express more than one emotion, through disorienting shifts in keys and with dissonance lurking beneath the most straightforward melody lines. At the end of ''Giants in the Sky,'' movingly performed by Mr. Wylie, Jack sings that there are ''big tall terrible awesome scary wonderful Giants in the sky!''
Each of the adjectives is matched by a note that seems to explode into darkness, triumph and wonder all at once. What other composer can give you so many feelings in a single line? So by all means, go to ''Into the Woods.'' Admire the view. But above all, listen.
A mute cow, believe it or not, is the life of the party at Broadway's new "Into the Woods." This revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical isn't wholly dependent on its scene-stealing bovine for the new spring in its step, to be sure. But you could say that Chad Kimball's nimble performance in this mute role -- in the original, Milky White was played by a hunk of plastic on wheels -- is emblematic of the way some minor tweaking has resulted in a major mood swing for this knotty musical.
With some splashy special effects, fleet choreography by John Carrafa and performers who bring piles of sass, wit and sparkle to their roles, this is a flashier and blessedly brisker presentation of Sondheim and Lapine's crazy quilt of fairy tales for our unhappy-ever-after age. No, it doesn't solve the problems of a show that still lacks cohesion and concision -- and, on a deeper level, authentic emotional appeal. But in taking itself less seriously, the new production does render those flaws less deleterious, and it allows the gems in Sondheim's score to glitter bewitchingly.
Since we're on the subject of bewitching, let us praise the show's toplined performer, Vanessa Williams, the most wickedly appealing witch it's possible to imagine. When she's transformed from gnarled crone into -- well, Vanessa Williams! -- toward the end of the first act, it's as if all the men in the audience have been granted the wish they've been fervently wishing since the curtain went up. As stunning as she looks in her vaguely Grecian gown and cascading blond curls, Williams probably could vamp her way through the role and still succeed. But while she does have a few funny, hip-slinging diva moves in her repertoire (her contribution to the long opening prologue is recast almost as rap here), she also gives a finely sung, spunky performance as the overprotective guardian of Rapunzel.
A similar blend of humor, charisma and vocal polish is to be found in Laura Benanti's Cinderella, the put-upon lass who, like virtually every character in the show, is deeply ambivalent about actually getting what she wishes for. An increasingly invaluable Broadway ingenue, Benanti brings a pleasing clarity to one of the score's many songs of moral and emotional befuddlement, "On the Steps of the Palace."
Her prancing prince is played by Gregg Edelman in one of the evening's tastiest comic turns. Edelman revels in his character's smarmy amour propre and blithe selfishness (the prince's justification for his philandering, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," draws one of the evening's biggest laughs), and his two duets with his fine fellow royal Christopher Sieber on "Agony" are among the evening's highlights.
In the central roles of the Baker and his wife, whose efforts to undo the witch's curse on their family tie all the fairy tales loosely together, Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley also perform with an appealingly light touch, etching their roles with bright comic strokes but bringing a fine, simple conviction to them nonetheless. Excellent contributions also come from a fresh-voiced Adam Wylie as Jack, of beanstalk fame, and an amusingly squawky Marylouise Burke as his exasperated mum; Molly Ephraim as a cranky Little Red Ridinghood; and of course Kimball, who manages to imbue Milky White with an almost human complexity of feeling, without benefit of even a single Sondheim lyric.
Indeed, in some ways it's easier to forge an emotional connection with that mute cow than with his talkative human companions. As engaging as the evening's performances are, they can't overcome this musical's chief drawback, which is that it never quite ceases to be a theatrical conceit.
It's a clever one, certainly, and Sondheim and Lapine execute it with much wit and inventiveness (perhaps too much of the latter: the show's other primary drawback is its overelaborate structure). But for all its dense explorations of human fallibility and vulnerability, the show lacks humanity -- literally. Imbuing fairy tale characters with pop-up neuroses and powers of self-analysis doesn't really render them human; it just makes them less archetypal. (Could designs with contemporary flair help? Susan Hilferty's traditional costumes and Douglas W. Schmidt's lush but standard storybook sets are handsome enough, but it would be nice to see this show's visual aspects approached more adventurously.)
As a result, Lapine's knotty dialogue and Sondheim's brilliantly crafted songs fail to achieve the emotional power they strive for. The show's often bluntly explicit musings on personal growth and social responsibility are essentially coming to us straight from the pens of the authors: rendered in cute theatrical calligraphy perhaps, but not filtered through recognizable experience, as in Sondheim's other shows.
This becomes a serious drain on the proceedings in the less comic second act, when a marauding giant attacks the fairy tale kingdom and the characters begin getting picked off like horny teens in a slasher pic, to roughly equivalent emotional effect. This is despite the eerie effectiveness of the flickering shadow used to give a sense of the giant, and the vocal performance contributed by no less than Judi Dench.
"Into the Woods" is far more charming when it is taking a satirical approach to its archetypal characters, allowing its talented cast to dig into the loopy comic aspects of the material: When a big bad wolf is salivating over his lunch, when a prince is preening over his proud lack of integrity, when a harried mother cracks wise about her son's fixation on a cow. The show's intermittent silliness is, in the end, more memorable than its murky musings on the pains and perils of maturity.