Trust the tale, not the teller, they say. But Stephen Sondheim’s innately ironic spirit wasn’t created to trust either. Even before he collaborated with James Lapine on 1987’s Into the Woods (Delacorte Theater), Sondheim filled his work with debunking allusions to fairy-tale diction—most of them deleted before the Broadway opening. Company originally ended with a long, ferociously arduous song called “Happily Ever After”; an unhappy wife in Do I Hear a Waltz sings “I was taught/When the prince and the dragon fought/That the dragon was always caught/Now I don’t even wince/When it eats the prince.”
“Though fairy tales are foolish,” warble the young lovers in a song cut from A Little Night Music, “That’s a fairy tale to trust.” But trust, whether compatible with Sondheim’s self-questioning sensibility or not, is precisely what fairy tales aren’t meant to engender, at least not in grown-ups. Pre-moral creations that bubbled up from the collective unconscious, the tales transform dangerous real phenomena—unkind stepmothers, wolves, tyrannical rulers—into narrative elements that, treated magically and playfully, make genuine threats paradoxically easier for children’s minds to absorb. The notion of scrutinizing their playfulness from a naturalistic, psychological point of view, as Sondheim and Lapine did in Into the Woods, has a weirdly literal-minded quality—all the more when encased in an inherently playful form like the musical.
Consequently, Into the Woods has always been an oddity in the Sondheim oeuvre, a lucky Cinderella of a musical that’s royally adored by many (especially if they experienced it in childhood) and heartily disliked by some. Piling Sondheimian treatments of no less than six fairy tales (don’t forget the princes’ second-act flings with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) into a problematic new one invented by Lapine, the show has always seemed a little top-heavy, a little confused, and—despite all its spells and transformations—a little less than magical.
Sondheim’s devastating brilliance, at both lyrical wordplay and musical architecture, only intermittently invites the warmth that goes with the image of a parent telling a child a bedtime story, even a grisly cautionary tale. Built on astoundingly skillful expansions of small, often reiterated themes, the score sometimes seems to put up a brick wall of notes between us and the characters. Lapine’s jocose, convoluted mix-and-match of the tales, too, often seems to deride, rather than explore, his sources, occasionally creating unintended intersections. (Does the Baker ever register that Rapunzel is his sister?) The spirit of schoolyard jokes that trash fairy tales (cf. punchlines like “There are seven little dents in her maidenhead” and “Eat, eat, eat, doesn’t anybody wanna fuck anymore?”) lurks ominously nearby.
That latter joke, almost literally acted out, sounds a sort of degrading keynote to Timothy Sheader’s production, imported from London’s Regent’s Park, in revised form, for Shakespeare in the Park’s 50th anniversary season. A strange mash-up of good and bad ideas, Sheader’s staging, accompanied by Liam Steel’s incessant, fidgety choreography, removes any hint of affectionate bedtime-story atmosphere by framing the evening in the tale of a single father’s runaway child (Noah Radcliffe at the press performance), who narrates the shenanigans of these antique characters, improbably, via a backpack full of very contemporary toys. For reasons I won’t reveal, using a child as narrator creates considerable muddle in the middle of the drama.
The show’s designs are even more muddled: John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s set displays a wood heavily infested with man-made staircases, letting most of the action occur on a tanbark-strewn meadow in front of it, so that the characters spend the bulk of their time out of the woods. Emily Rebholz’s costumes veer from quaint (a Baker’s Wife dressed like a Victorian governess) to aggressively anti-quaint (Cinderella’s stepsisters, fashionettes straight from a Madonna video). The staging, in keeping with the negativity currently chic, goes for the glum whenever possible, which does little to texture the show’s already dour spirit, and a lot of the singing tends to be either screeched or rattled off with little musical sense. Donna Murphy, as the Witch, suffers least from the overall shortcomings; Jessie Mueller, a miscast Cinderella, and the oddly paired Denis O’Hare and Amy Adams, as the Baker and his Wife, handle the production’s maltreatment gamely. The Princes and Rapunzel sing decently. But one can’t say the Public has knocked Into the Woods out of the park—or even securely into it.