The first words sung in “Into the Woods” are “I wish.”
I wish everyone could experience this exquisitely revived fractured fairy tale, on a balmy summer night in the bosky surround of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.
Director Timothy Sheader first staged this production outdoors in London after rethinking the 1987 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical.
They’ve added a better framing device and turned an elegiac musical into something sharper and more updated, the Grimm brothers as reimagined by the characters from “Doonesbury.”
And yet little of the show’s transcendent power and dreamlike moodiness have been sacrificed. Notwithstanding some odd casting choices, the overall effect remains that of a child’s compendium refracted through the grown-up filters of memory, experience and regret.
John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s arboreal set, with winding stairs and an owl’s nest for Rapunzel’s aerie seems to have sprouted directly from the surrounding environs. In the woods, the Baker (Denis O’Hare, plaintive and appealing) and his wife (Amy Adams, looking oddly as though she’d wandered in from a Henry James novel and singing somewhat perfunctorily) encounter the Witch (Donna Murphy).
She tells them that to break the spell that has kept them childless, they must bring her “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold.”
This leads inevitably to encounters with, and among, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame, Cinderella and various princes, step-relatives, the Wolf, a mysterious old man and, in a fleeting cameo, three little pigs.
Not to mention a Giant, whose appearance is a thrilling coup-de-theatre. When she snarls and roars, it’s the voice of Glenn Close in her best Cruella De Vil mode.
The lascivious Wolf (Ivan Hernandez, campily smarmy) woos Red while telling us that “there’s no possible way to describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.”
But she’s not such a naif and Sarah Stiles, in a red bicycle helmet, denim shorts and crimson cowboy boots, is at once terrified and mesmerized by him.
After their unmistakably carnal encounter, she sings, in one of the show’s most haunting songs, that “we wait in the dark until someone sets us free...and I know things now, many valuable things that I hadn’t known before.”
The story is narrated by a boy (the wonderful Noah Radcliffe the night I saw it, alternating with Jack Broderick). Chip Zien, a member of the original Broadway cast, returns here as the mysterious old man. Jack is winningly played by Gideon Glick, as is his mother, by Kristine Zbornik.
At the center of it all is the Witch. Murphy is a sensuous soprano with the high cheekbones and almond eyes of a Broadway vamp. But Sondheim likes her wrapped in gnarly twigs, draped in tangled dreadlocks that look like home to vermin and appended with spiny fingers you don’t want to be anywhere near.
At least she doesn’t have a giant faux mole, which was the salient facial feature of her homely Fosca in Sondheim and Lapine’s “Passion.”
The star does finally get to shed the threads and look soignee as she leads the ensemble in a reprise of “Children Will Listen” (“careful the things you say”), a song that informs every minute, and every detail, of this captivating production. And she belts the show-stopping “Last Midnight” over the turreted towers along Central Park West in the distance.
Sheader and co-director Liam Steel fill the vast set with action while never losing focus on the story. They push the loss-of-innocence theme, borrowing from B-movies, video games and pop psychology in ways that are entertaining and build in velocity.
Emily Rebholz’s brilliant costumes and the extraordinary palette of Ben Stanton’s lighting all do some heavy lifting in creating atmosphere while keeping every character distinct.
Music direction and orchestrations are in the secure hands of Sondheim masters Paul Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick, respectively.
Special mention must go to Rachael Canning’s puppetry, for there can never have been so anthropomorphically moving a Milky White as the sad, responsive cow Jack tugs around the stage, nor so comically scary a giant, with her rhinestone specs and menacing fingers made of red-tipped garden shovels.
The soul of “Into the Woods” is its incomparable score, in which the ballads have the propulsion of patter songs and the patter songs are imbued with a torchy sense of loss. These characters may have sprung from tales meant for children, but their songs of experience are wholly adult.
Through Sept. 1 at the Delacorte Theater; enter Central Park at E.79th St. or W. 81st St. Information: +1-212-539-8750; http://www.shakespeareinthepark.org. Rating: *****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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