Into the Woods in Central Park

The crickets of Central Park are alive with the sound of Sondheim.

With all the world's eyes presently cast on the track and fields of London, New York City theatergoers have their own Olympic treat awaiting then inside a lush and luminous forest at the Delacorte Theater. In celebration of 50 years of Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte -- provided free to the public -- the Public Theater this summer is featuring a Bard of Broadway, Stephen Sondheim, with a stunning production of Into the Woods. The musical received three Tony Awards when it opened in 1987, but never looked or sounded better, or felt more at home, than within this magical setting of Central Park.

And even though it is sans Shakespeare, the production is not without its British influence. The highlight of the production may be the staging and direction of Britain's Timothy Sheader (co-directed with Liam Steel), who made masterful use of a forest held together with rows of linked tree houses and enough balconies and ladders for a cast of fairytale characters to bring out the wit and wisdom that Sondheim believed lies within those woods. (This production, albeit entirely new, is based on an earlier showing in London's Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, also directed by Sheader.)

In so many ways Into the Woods seemed to be Sondheim's most personal musical. The richness of the music and the dexterity of wordplay are so perfectly suited to take on the weighty themes of childhood wishes and fears, and the gamut of parental responsibilities, from overprotective, neglectful, or outright abandoning. Yes, parents make terrible mistakes in their parenting -- intentional or not.

They say things they don't mean, although occasionally they do. Stepparents are always to be regarded with caution. Children sometimes end up raising themselves, or getting too cozy with wolves, bears, or dwarves (or is it dwarfs?). And they have a tendency to wish for things that can't possibly come true. And yet even in fairy tales where magical endings and happily ever after are virtually guaranteed and never fail to fix all of life's confusions, false hopes still remain, and sequels and second acts end up exposing a whole host of disappointments that lurk deeper within those woods.

Can there ever be a truly happy ending? Should we even want one?

The cast is very much up to the task of sorting this all out. Denis O'Hare, whose face is becoming more familiar through his film work, reminds everyone what a compelling stage presence and fine voice he has as the Baker. Amy Adams, as his wife, provides the always-appreciated star power at the Delacorte, and also proves that her singing in the film, Enchanted, was no fluke. Donna Murphy, one of the leading interpreters of the Sondheim songbook, is superb as the witch straight out of the Realpolitik school of hard knocks. Jessie Mueller is a winning and also heartbreaking Cinderella, and Sarah Stiles and Gideon Glick make for a hilarious pair of mischievous fairytale teenagers as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, respectively.

Along the way the characters sing and dance in search of golden eggs and slippers, trying to make their wishes come true while stepping through the forest haltingly, losing and again finding what they came for, only to discover that they weren't so sure whether they needed it all along. Red capes mask intentions. Cursed families never overcome their collective trauma. Dead parents still manage to speak from their graves. And beans usually add up to no more than a hill of beans. Princes don't always act princely, and princesses sometimes end up realizing that they would rather clean house, after all. Beanstalks can serve as gateways for stalking giants, and that's what axes are for. And a fair maiden in desperate need of a haircut is probably better off remaining locked away in a tower.

Of course, those lessons are mere fairy tales, revised and embellished by a master of musical theater. They have nothing to do with real life.

This is truly a special production, and yet another fine example of the Public Theater at its best and Joseph Papp's vision fully realized -- an enchanting night, in the open air of the Delacorte Theater, the public watching, the woods beckoning.