Presented by the Public Theater in Central Park, on Thursday, August 2.
Into the Woods is often described as Stephen Sondheim's most accessible musical, and it probably is, but it absolutely is not as lightly pleasant and innocuous as that label might suggest. For starters, Sondheim's mash-up of familiar fairy tales—with a book by James Lapine—uses the dark Grimm accounts of the stories, not bright Disnified versions, so Cinderella's stepmother, for example, actually mutilates her daughters' feet to try to squeeze them into the slipper and Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother insists that they sew stones into the disemboweled wolf's belly to add to his torment. It's creepy.
But even beyond that, Sondheim and Lapine are more interested in the implications of the tales then the stories themselves—the passage from innocence to experience, the relationship between parent and child, the questionable good fortune of having a wish come true—and they probe those issues with good humor but absolutely no sentimentality. Into the Woods is clever and charming and funny, yes, but also disturbing and bloody and sad. The content is accessible, and perhaps some of the songs as well (though Sondheim's meandering, pattery tunes may be something of an acquired taste), but the themes are uncompromising—which is one of the things that makes Into the Woods such a great musical in the first place.
I honestly think director Timothy Sheader gets that. His elaborate production for Shakespeare(/Sondheim) in the Park is nothing if not ambitious, a genuine attempt to engage with the ideas in the text and find a new spin on them. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work, and the sheer busy-ness of the thing is a distraction, but it's interesting, and it features some very good performances. And ultimately, it's an opportunity to hear "I Know Things Now" and "Agony" and "Moments in the Wood" and "Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen"—songs I adore, songs for which I know every lyric by heart—and for that, well, I can forgive a lot of awkwardness.