The Lyric Stage Company of Boston opened its sumptuous revival of Into the Woods on Mother's Day. And what a cautionary parental tale it is, with its Baker's Wife ambivalent about the long-awaited bun in her oven, its nagging mom for Jack of beanstalk fame, Cinderella's cruel stepmother, and a Witch who keeps snatched daughter Rapunzel walled up in a tower using her hair as a ladder. But there is poignancy as well as forewarning in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical mash-up of Bruno Bettelheim and the Brothers Grimm, with its rumblings of Freud and giants' footsteps. True, Into the Woods tends to pop up like a good penny, but this production, helmed by Lyric producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos, proves ironic, piquant, and very skillfully sung.
The first and last lyrics of Into the Woods are "I wish." In between, though the book can be as bloated as the score is sonorous and smart, we learn to be careful of what we wish for (because "wishes come true/Not free"). The Witch, the show's ruthless though not heartless pragmatist, knows this. The other characters — Jack and his kvetching mom, Little Red Riding Hood and her ingested but undaunted granny, Cinderella, Rapunzel, their assorted wolves and princes, and the bakery-running couple added by Sondheim and Lapine — must venture into a forest "dark and wide," not to mention a thicket of bad choices, moral abdications, and devastating loss, to figure it out. A reassuring "Runaway Bunny" the show is not.
Nonetheless, the Lyric production plays up the piece's fairy-tale roots. There are Disney-cartoon echoes in both David Towlun's storybook set, bookended by Rapunzel's rock tower and the hollowed-out tree where Cinderella's bird friends flutter, and in Elisabetta Polito's costumes, their bright flounces and princes' liveries offset by a little cinch and leather. What's missing is the sanitization old Walt brought to the oft-gruesome stories — though there is even some of that amid the amputated toes and blindings: Little Red and her grandmother tumble quite unscathed from the Wolf's slashed bed sheet of a belly. But the contrast between make-believe and Grimm reality is both disconcerting and delightful, beginning with dapper Will McGarrahan's tongue-in-cheek narration and his deliberately hokey transformations from coral-bow-tied Alistair Cooke figure into parka-clad Mysterious Man with a moral message for Jack.
Musical director Catherine Stornetta leads the excellent if invisible musicians, and Veloudos has assembled an ace collection of faces old and new, most with the glistening pipes required to carry Sondheim's dissonant, infectious melodies and syncopated lyrics. In the crucial role of the Witch, Aimee Doherty displays sharp comic chops and such precise diction that, when she describes an affronting assault on her character's garden, we miss not one phoneme of "Rooting through my rutabaga/Raiding my arugula and/Ripping up the rampion." Yet when it comes to invoking the ominous "Last Midnight" or conveying the anguish of "Witch's Lament," she proves as formidable as she has been verbally adroit and funny.
Erica Spyres' ambivalent if fetching Cinderella nails all the plaintive loveliness Sondheim packs into "No One is Alone." Lisa Yuen's luminous yet mischievous Baker's Wife capably shares the upbeat "It Takes Two" with John Ambrosino's timid if also chauvinistic Baker and brings a more rueful sense of discovery to the wised-up, post-coital "Moments in the Woods." Gregory Balla proves both a childlike Jack, mooning over his inanimate cow, and an able singer. Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Sam Simahk chew through the surefire pair of "Agony" duets for cheating princes with a grand mix of self-involvement and romantic bluster. And Maritza Bostic is an amusingly sly Little Red, skipping through the forest with her mouth full of sweets and her eyes alight with comical expression. In fact, given the strength of this enterprise, I'd call the Lyric's announcement that it will open its next season with Sweeney Todd a pretty fair shot at happily ever after — whatever shakiness Sondheim and Lapine ascribe to that state.