Theatergoers will find it difficult to suppress a smile upon entering the theater and seeing the woodland jungle-gym (from scenic designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour) that seems to have sprung, quite naturally, from the stage. It's an ingenious set of staircases, bridges, and ladders that's topped by a cameo-like bird's nest that, among other things, serves as home to Rapunzel (Tess Soltau).
And, as the characters in the his bittersweet musical -- who also include Rapunzel's mother, The Witch (Donna Murphy), Cinderella (Jessie Mueller), and the childless Baker (Denis O'Hare) and his wife (Amy Adams) -- hurdle through adventures toward a happily-ever after that proves to be anything but, the actors tirelessly traverse the several stories of the structure.
At times, the effect is truly awe-inspiring, as when a group of performers with umbrellas ascend the central spiral staircase to gorgeously create the effect of the giant beanstalk springing from the earth that the intrepid Jack (Gideon Glick) will eventually climb.
Such whimsicality also abounds in both Rachael Canning's exceptional puppet design (particularly for the giant, which is voiced by Glenn Close) and Emily Rebholz's costumes, which make many of the archetypal characters seem as if they might be people that one might encounter just outside the theater.
For example, Sarah Stiles' superlatively naughty Little Red sports a crimson bike helmet and hoodie, while others, like Cinderella's stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and stepsisters (Bethany Moore and Jennifer Rias), are dressed like Goth can-can girls, giving them a picture book-like -- and downtown chic -- appeal.
Rebholz's most astonishing creation, though, is the amalgam of vines, moss and branches that seem to have attached themselves to the incomparable Murphy. The costume -- and Murphy's adroit use of it -- often makes it seem as if the crone had literally (and ominously) grown from the woodchips that scatter the stage surface.
But even more impressive than her physical performance in the costume is the rich comic spirit, decidedly touching humanity, and ominous bitterness that are adroitly part of her portrayal of the crone. All of these traits combine gloriously toward the end of the play, as the Witch delivers her farewell to this world with the soaring, almost aria-like "Last Midnight." As Murphy's voice soars along with Sondheim's driving melody, the effect is simply spine-tingling.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to not wish that there was more uniformity in the rest of the company. While O'Hare and Adams bring comic zest and emotional spark to their scenes, they are not always up to the vocal demands of the score. Similarly, Glick's goofball turn as Jack delights, but his delivery of "Giants in the Sky," the character's paean to his discovery of the world atop the beanstalk, is less than satisfying.
More compelling is Mueller's work as one of the nerdiest, but also the sweetest, Cinderellas on record, while Ivan Hernandez, as her Prince, joyously channels a preening 19th-century matinee idol's arrogance. In addition, Hernandez's portrayal of the wolf that menaces Little Red proves to be sizzling -- and creepily sexy.
Also notable is the giddily daffy performance that Chip Zien (who originated the role of the Baker in 1987) gives as the spooky "Mysterious Man" who pops in and out of the action. Finally, Noah Radcliffe (who alternates with Jack Broderick) delivers solidly as the youthful narrator, whose involvement in the action has more consequence than ever, thanks to a framing device created for this mostly enchanting production.