Stephen Sondheim’s Musical “In the Woods” spurs youthful wonderment and imagination

Stephen Sondheim perennial musical and James Lapine’s story, “In the Woods” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is captivating 2012 New York theatergoers. The dark fairy-tale has been significantly enhanced by virtue of the Delacorte rustic setting. Shakespeare in the Park is one thing but “In the Woods” seems as though it was meant to be performed outdoors.

Timothy Sheader’s successful open-air staging 2010, London production has been revived. Its first-rate cast headed by Amy Adams, Donna Murphy and Denis O’Hare, imaginative touches unfamiliar physical — and emotional — terrain combine to make an enchanted experience.

The 1987 musical, a quick-moving story both sweet and gay of a baker and his wife’s journey into the woods in search of a cow, a red cape, a pair of golden slippers and some magic beans to lift a curse that has kept them childless.

The outdoor setting allows the show to take on more playful elements and integrate the appearance of dolls, puppets, umbrellas and inchoate costumes (the baker and his wife — Denis O’Hare and Amy Adams — wear traditional peasant garb; Cinderella — Jessie Mueller — is often in jeans and Chucks). A staggered tree-house set feels organic to both the lush park backdrop and the child narrator’s frame of reference. But daytime fantasies take on a darker edge once night falls, and the boy’s imagination runs away with him instead.

“Into the Woods” is a mash-up of beloved story-time tropes. It evades a modern or particular opinion and draws broad strokes on classic themes of family, trust and innocence lost. It’s a sharp-tongued and sometimes salacious play as well, but it would be admittedly more gripping if it played more Grimm.

The actors are all exact for their parts, but not necessarily for the same show. Where some are weaker with acting or comedy, others have less vocal aplomb. The talent is all there, but branched; this production relies on your willingness to see the forest — er, woods — for the trees. Standouts include a spunky Little Red (Sarah Stiles) and one deliciously evil witch (Donna Murphy). Oh, and you might see Glenn Close in your Playbill — watch for one of the biggest guest “cameos” of the year.

It’s also a powerful and elegiac lullaby of anguish, grief, and acceptance of disappointment, particularly the disappointment shared by parents and children. In addition, familiar characters like Little Red Riding Hood (Avenue Q‘s Sarah Stiles), Rapunzel (Tess Soltau), and Cinderella (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever‘s Jessie Mueller) appear in unfamiliar ways: wishing for what they don’t have, gathering the courage to go into the frightening unknown to get it, and coming out far wiser in the end. Director Timothy Sheader’s buoyantly inventive, into-the-trees production makes room for every emotion, thanks to a generously talented cast led by Donna Murphy in a stop-the-show thrilling performance as the witch. (Another starry highlight: As the baker and his wife, Denis O’Hare and Amy Adams sweetly interpret the tender duet ”It Takes Two.”)

Stephen Sondheim has truly come alive as the mood set in this setting was meant to fill the soul with youthful wonderment and imagination.

The production, which runs through Sept. 1, makes use of every nearby treetop in a madly inventive, crazy-picture-book set designed by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour. (It’s up there that we encounter Soltau’s Rapunzel.) Sheader, who directed the show two years ago at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, has an obvious feel for the show, one of Sondheim’s most enduring hits. Here, working with co-director Liam Steel, he’s produced once-upon-a-lifetime theater.