Set deep in the bowers of New York's Central Park, the Public Theater's radiant production of Into the Woods prepares lucky ticket-holders for an enchanted experience even before the first fairytale character appears on stage. We, too, must journey into the woods to arrive at one of the magical theater destinations of New York City, the open-air Delacorte Theater, now celebrating its 50th anniversary as home to Shakespeare in the Park. The path is safe, the air is soft (okay, hot), the sun is setting, the park is thronged. Moreover, the tickets are free and simultaneously as precious as Jack's magic beans.
The 1987 musical, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, tells a story both sweet and gay. 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.'')
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. A
(Free ticket info: shakespeareinthepark.org)