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Into the Woods rises above the glut of revisionist fairy tales

Alliance Theatre production of Sondheim classic is as relevant as ever

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Who is Little Red Riding Hood? A symbol of girlish innocence? A scarlet-cloaked temptress in charge of her own sexuality? A werewolf hunter in a cunning disguise? As a famous character in the public domain, Li'l Red can be all these things and more.

Recently, revisionist treatments of classic stories have been multiplying like the Sorcerer's Apprentice's walking broomsticks. The fall TV season features two new hour-long shows based on old-school bedtime stories, "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm," while movie studios are racing to bring their big-screen projects to life: Competing Snow White projects star Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts as the evil queen.

At the Alliance Theatre, Red Riding Hood joins Cinderella, the Wicked Witch and Jack of the Beanstalk fame for Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's ingenious fusion of beloved folktales. Into the Woods made its debut 25 years ago. But at a time when mining storybooks reeks of desperation, the Sondheim musical sets the standard for fairy tale revisionism that feels at once fresh and universal.

Most of the recent fractured fairy tales use fantasy settings for predictable love stories and quickly dated pop culture gags, like the Shrek films' riffs on the kingdom of Far Far Away. For Into the Woods, Sondheim drew inspiration from The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's influential text about the emotional and symbolic importance of fairy tales. Directed by Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth, the musical doesn't just recount some oft-told narratives, but keeps proving their meanings and consequences.

Into the Woods' first act presents an ingenious mashup that links multiple stories simultaneously. A menacing witch (Angela Robinson, in grotesque makeup for Act One) informs a baker and his wife (Mark Price and Courtney Balan) that a long-standing curse prevents them from conceiving a child. To break the spell, they must retrieve four items: the hair of Rapunzel (Jamie Wood Katz), the slipper of Cinderella (Jill Ginsberg), the hood of Little Red (Diany Rodriguez) and the cow belonging to Jack (Jeremy Wood). These characters and more move in and out of each other's stories over three nights in a magical forest.

The wearying aspect of most revisionist fairy tales is that they usually trade on our comforting Disney memories rather than their knottier source material, so they loose thematic sharpness. The Alliance's Into the Woods even gets an easy laugh with brief but specific shout-outs to the Disney Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Disney films notoriously iron out the cautionary lessons, such as the way Hans Christian Andersen's spurned Little Mermaid reverts to foam in the sea.

Consider the difference between Disney's animated feature Tangled with Woods' Rapunzel numbers. In the cartoon, the witch sings "Mother Knows Best" simply to manipulate Rapunzel into staying at home. In Woods, Robinson's witch sings "Stay With Me" out of desperation to keep her foster daughter/prisoner from growing up and moving on. It's a poignant moment that acknowledges the audience's ability to appreciate scenes with emotional complexity.

Into the Woods and the Alliance production respect the original stories while continually looking beneath their surfaces. Traditionally, Cinderella makes the rags-to-riches leap from pauper to princess without really looking back. But Woods' Cinderella feels ambivalent about royal society and her prince almost immediately. In her scenes with the Baker's wife, the older woman delights in the idea of romancing a prince, while Cinderella questions the reality. And she's right have qualms: Hayden Tee, the production's powerhouse vocalist, doubles as Cinderella's Prince and the swaggering alpha male wolf to symbolize unchecked masculine appetites.

While kids and grown-ups alike can enjoy Into the Woods' sparkling first half, the second half reveals the happily ever aftermath. Second thoughts plague some characters, while others deal with their actions' consequences as a disaster plagues the kingdom. With death, betrayal and loss, Into the Woods has a dark, gritty finale. Most of us live neither in splendor nor squalor, but plain ordinary life. The complex relationship and problematic choices of the baker and his wife, especially in Balan and Price's performances, reveal the truths behind sayings such as "Be careful what you wish for."

Perhaps the most powerful thing that distinguishes Into the Woods from other fairy tale reboots is the actual woods. The title song and other recurring numbers evoke the woods as a place of crisis, passion and transformation, with tests and temptations around every corner. Where Neil Jordan's dreamlike film In the Company of Wolves conjures up a forest primeval, Todd Rosenthal's Alliance set suggests a more comforting location, with a wall of wooden lattice-work worthy of a backyard garden.

The woods still comes across as a place of knowledge that comes at a price. Rodriguez's Little Red, excessively precocious and modern in her early scenes, sings "I Know Things Now" as if both shaken and exhilarated by a near-death experience that represents a loss of virginity. Into the Woods so eloquently addresses questions of how to live one's life that the musical seems to resonate with any real-world situation. We can only hope that all of the newfangled legends strive for the same level of relevance.

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