08/09/2012 07:32 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

First Nighter: Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine Go 'Into the Woods' and Get Lost

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine want to make damn sure you know that life is made of the occasional modest high and the frequent devastating low. Sondheim -- more than once abetted by Lapine (think Sunday in the Park With George and Passion) -- has always hewed to his motivating themes of ambivalence and ambiguity.

He followed this line of obsessive thought nowhere more so than in his 1987 Into the Woods, which in Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his brilliant memoir-cum-how-to, he describes as "mashing" several fairy tales -- involving Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack of beanstalk fame and his mother -- into one three-hour-long(!) mega-tale. The aim is to explode the "happily ever after" myth that parents and children (often at-sword's point) may be allowing to dictate their views of the world and thereby compromise them forever.

Somehow in the Sondheim-Lapine determination to send this message by way of a mash-up, they too often present a mish-mash, as is confirmed in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park revival, directed by Timothy Sheader with co-director Liam Steel. The production is based on their 2010 Open Air Theatre treatment in London's Regent's Park.

Though some may quarrel with Sheader's take on the complex material, his accomplishments and missteps can be and should be kept separate from those of Sondheim's and Lapine's. To begin with, his replacing the original adult narrator with a young boy (played by either Noah Radcliffe or Jack Broderick) does do a tidy, though obvious, job of establishing the father-son instant-enemy point the creators want so eagerly to get across.

Sheader also takes the title seriously and has transmitted his intentions to set designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour, who was responsible for the Open Air look. Amid numerous leafy trees added to Central Park's already lush foliage, they've erected a multi-level wooden structure the energetic company constantly ascends and descends so as to keep the action as lively as the subway at rush-hour. Soutra and Beatty have even spread a carpet of wood chips for the peripatetic ensemble to leap and lope across.

Sheader's costumes notions, brought to eye-popping reality by Emily Rebholz (and different from the London wardrobe), are something else again. Undoubtedly motivated by the idea of up-dating (up-ending?) the fairy tales, Rebholz has dressed many of the characters in glitzy, verging-closely-on-sleazy outfits. Suffice it to say, the Little Red Ridinghood here (funny, squeaky-voiced Sarah Stiles) could just as readily be called Little Red Ridinghelmet.

Also suffice it to say, building the long fingers of the Witch (Donna Murphy) so they look like branches is unadulterated inspiration. More inspiration abounds in the quick set-up of the bed in which Little Red Riding Helmet's granny (Tina Johnson) is supposed to lie and in the array of umbrellas opened to become Jack's beanstalk.

All instructions Sheader gave the actors seem to be in line with what Lapine and Sondheim want. This means that Denis O'Hare as the hapless Baker, Amy Adams as his wife, Jessie Mueller as Cinderella, Gideon Glick as Jack, Christine Zbornik as Jack's venal mom, Chip Zien (the Baker in the original production) as Mysterious Man, as well as Murphy, Stiles, Johnson and the rest are effective as long when their behavior is recognizable. They're less so when their predicaments are confusing, eventually even tedious.

That's where the Sondheim-Lapine reach exceeds their grasp. In the first act, the writing team stalks Baker and spouse through dialog and song as they cross paths with Jack, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. In order to reverse the Witch's curse condemning them never to have a child, the Bakers must obtain Jack's milky-white cow, Little Red's cape, a lock of Rapunzel's hair and one of Cinderella's slippers. They do so after many attenuated attempts until Sondheim and Lapine contrive an upbeat first-act close.

When the second act opens, the happily-ever-after comes to an abrupt halt, however. (In 1960 The Fantasticks made the same act-two discovery with the succinct kick-off line, "This plum is too ripe.") The Giant (Glenn Close's voice) from whom Jack has stolen a harp (Victoria Cook) starts trampling the land. He's hunting jack for retribution. Or else. The upshot is a seemingly endless holocaust meant to illustrate the tuner's adamant belief that once parents and children accept life's inevitable insecurities, they can see each other for who they are and for the meager goodnesses they can exchange.

Sondheim's lyrics repeat the conflicting sentiments. He says so in the "Children Will Listen" finale, although the Witch has preceded the unassailable statement by singing the equally unassailable comment that "children won't listen." Before he gets around to those declarations, the songwriter has already inserted "No One is Alone," which includes the thought that "everybody makes one another's terrible mistakes." Incidentally, it's difficult not to hear "No One is Alone" as Sondheim's antidote to "You'll Never Walk Alone," mentor Oscar Hammerstein II's staunch anthem from Carousel.

Indeed, it's difficult not to experience the driving score (Jonathan Tunick's often driving orchestrations) as an answer to the more traditionally melodic Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers Cinderella (due on Broadway within the year). For this work, Sondheim refuses to write anything that might be called conventionally pretty -- "pretty isn't beautiful," he has Seurat declare in Sunday in the Park With George).

The commitment results in any number of ditties so jittery that the dizzying rhymes go past clever and too-clever-by-half to land in suspiciously-compulsive territory. These songs -- prominent among them, the Baker couple's "It Takes Two" and Cinderella's "On the Steps of the Palace" -- tease patrons to seek relief by ceasing to listen. (Forget about children not listening.) Those numbers also lead to singers not so much singing songs as running obstacle races. In the instance of group numbers, unintelligibility rules.

Of course, this is Sondheim, whose wordsmithing expertise inevitably breaks through some part of the time. "Agony," delivered by Cinderella's Prince (Ivan Hernandez) and Rapunzel's Prince (Cooper Grodin), is the highlight. By the way, it's sung in for-love and against-love versions. The title tune as well as "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen" also circle the brain nicely.

In this Sondheim-Lapine context, the "into the woods" phrase is meant metaphorically, of course. It stands for the bewilderment humans face when figuring out how to make sense of the world. In the context of this show, though, it somehow also suggests the puzzlement Sondheim and Lapine experienced once they wandered into this project and had trouble finding their way out.