Fractured fairy tales

There's a moment near the beginning of Into the Woods, Theatre Three's latest production, when you know you've ventured into Sondheim territory--and director Jac Alder has provided you with a whip-smart, conscientious map. Little Red Riding Hood (Emily Parsons) has just detailed her purpose for traveling through the trees--to bring her grandmother food and wine. Almost as an afterthought, she adds with a precocious but strangely sophisticated trill: "Who knows what lies ahead/For all I know, she might be dead."

As a composer, Stephen Sondheim possesses much of Little Red's childlike glee and a lot more of her intuition for tragedy's rude, unexpected appearance in any given scene. In retrospect, it's somewhat remarkable that Sondheim has garnered the box-office success and mainstream theatrical hosannas that now make him a grandfatherly figure to the composers who spiked Miss Saigon, Rent, and other somber megahits with a jigger of cynicism. The moral ambiguity of these extravaganzas might not have cut audiences with such a precise edge if Sondheim hadn't ventured into the darkness of America's most sophisticated dramatists and scurried out clutching original music and lyrics. His compositions owe much to the Brecht-Weill school of Kamikaze humanism, except that he displays little patience with politics and never preaches.

Even his most light-hearted fare, a category in which Into the Woods certainly belongs, trembles with a gentle pathos that often reveals itself in dagger-thrusts of comedy. No one who's seen a production of Sondheim's controversial Assassins will ever forget the image of John Hinckley dancing to a tender ballad with the object of his desire, Jodie Foster. Macabre, yes, but not quite outrageous. Assassins boiled over with the rude passions of killers and would-be killers in American political history, but Sondheim honed their various cockamamie agendas into one compelling and even sympathetic theme--ambition. He skirted theatrical flourish altogether with Passion, which detailed a homely woman's silent yearning for the wounded man she nursed. Some labeled that one of the most unpleasant and profoundly untheatrical musicals ever written, so obsessed was it with the gloomy quietude of unrequited love.

In Theatre Three's new staging of Into the Woods, director Jac Alder and his able cast have tackled what might easily be misinterpreted as Sondheim's most purely escapist show (his lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum notwithstanding). But the title itself addresses not just the play's unifying location but also its thematic concern--the dark place each of us must journey into to satisfy our desires. Of course, Sondheim knows we're likely to emerge from those woods with an utterly transformed sense of what we want, and that's the profound truth simmering beneath his wacky shenanigans. Theatre Three operates from this simple yet elusive understanding, refusing to rely solely on the play's surface appeal as a comic romp with a few heart-tugging ballads. Alder and his actors, along with design director Harland Wright and costumer and mask maker Bruce Coleman, have carved out a thrilling little wooden sculpture that is equally appealing whether viewed in a comic or a tragic light.

Co-written with James Lapine, Into the Woods packages all the incidental conversation and offstage action struck from the classic European fairy tales by the editor's red pen, with a few "Where Are They Now?"-style follow-ups appended as a second act. With startling confidence and clarity, Into the Woods ties together the stories of Jack (of "Beanstalk" fame, played by Jason Chambers), Little Red Riding Hood (Parsons), Cinderella (Tabitha Woods), and Rapunzel (Emilea Matzner). All of them stroll "into the woods" simultaneously in search of what their authors have destined for them. Unfortunately, their missions are hopelessly scrambled by the presence of the Baker and his wife (Michael Justis and Connie Nelson). These two scamper through the forest on a scavenger hunt ordained by a wicked enchantress (Liz Piazza Kelley), who has cursed the Baker with a childless household. She will lift the spell if he brings her the items she wants--a cow, a gold slipper, a red cape, and a hunk of blond hair. As it happens, all the other fairy-tale characters have precisely what the Baker and his wife want. By musical's end, everyone will have paid a price for seeking to fulfill his or her desires.

T3's Into the Woods is a visual orgy for lustful eyes, thanks to Wright's spindly wooden tree branches suspended like cobwebs above us and Coleman's splendorous costumery, which hops from royal costumes to peasant rags and manages to make both eye-catching yet harmonious. The Wolf that Red inevitably encounters is played with smashing menace by Greg Dulcie, who stalks the stage with gleaming black claws, fang-studded snout, bare feet, and bare chest. The way Dulcie looms over the sarcastic Parsons, hairy pectorals heaving, would make Bruno Bettelheim, Angela Carter, and the rest of the "we know what fairy tales really mean" crowd perspire with appreciation.

Dulcie, a standout among killer professionals, reappears with comic bravado as the Prince who pursues Cinderella straight from the ball. He lets us know who's really No. 1 in his life by performing hilariously self-infatuated duets with Gene Yaws, who plays his brother and Rapunzel's amour, and Connie Nelson as the Baker's wife, with whom he trysts in the forest during the confusion. Confronted by Cinderella about his infidelity, this Prince pleads: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."

The melodies of Stephen Sondheim have elicited vastly different responses from those on opposite sides of the footlights. Performers and musicians wax endless about their tight, intricate, rising and falling rhythm. Some critics and audience members, on the other hand, have declared Sondheim a lazy melody maker, whose sophisticated wordplay is squeezed into a staccato song-speak that makes one tune sound pretty much like another.

As a critic who boasts two years of grade-school flute study, I must wield my expert musicianship without pity and declare that the protesters indeed have a point. For their highly developed sense of musical craft, I sentence them to a lifetime serving Andrew Lloyd Webber pianoside, turning the maudlin gazillionaire's sheet music one page at a time. I suggest those who complain are missing the point: When joined to the X-acto rip of Sondheim's awesome lyrics, bare melodies only intensify the impact of his words.

Sondheim's greatest contribution to American theater just might be his challenge to the musical tradition. He dares other composers to champion content over style, and invites audiences to ponder ideas above prettiness. When a company as sympathetic as Theatre Three extends the invitation, you just can't say no.

Into the Woods runs through September 29. Call 871-2933.

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Jimmy Fowler