The gamble is a smart one, for “Into the Woods” has the feel of a winner for Signature, a troupe that has long staked its reputation on robust revivals of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. (It was the musical that christened its current headquarters in the Village at Shirlington in 2007.) The new production, staged by director Matthew Gardiner in what looks like the ruins of a forest cottage, adheres to the company’s high standards for musicality and design. What has yet to be expansively embraced by several in the cast of 17 — which includes the recorded voice of Phylicia Rashad as a furious Giant — is the searing emotionality in this story, of wishes granted but hopes dashed.
It’s a tricky duality that animates the work of Sondheim, who composed the spiky, melodic score, and James Lapine, who wrote the book. The 1987 musical is populated by fairy-tale characters — some famous, some newly minted — who exist in a fugue state, caught between their fantastical roles and their ordinary human predicaments. The Baker and his Wife (Jake Loewenthal, Erin Weaver) need artificial intervention to conceive a child. Cinderella (Katie Mariko Murray) seeks escape from a dull existence, in an unsuitable mate (Vincent Kempski). Little Red Riding Hood (Alex De Bard) is a headstrong child, learning of the appetites and responsibilities of adulthood. The Witch (Nova Y. Payton) imposes her smothering grievances on daughter Rapunzel (Simone Brown), whom she’s selfishly locked away.
The musical’s interlocking stories are laced with a wit that borders on callous. The characters are capable of both extreme generosity and extreme cruelty as they are forced to deal with the terror they have unleashed: that Giant wreaking havoc on the kingdom. Like the rest of us, they fight against the notion that they are at fault for the ills that befall them: “No, of course what really matters is the blame, somebody to blame,” Payton’s Witch sings with scathing authority in “The Last Midnight.” “Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy, placing the blame, if that’s the aim, give me the blame.”
“Into the Woods” is freighted with so many ideas that it can get lost in its own cleverness. At two hours and 45 minutes including intermission, it overstays a bit. But in its central preoccupation with consequences — how our wishes and choices affect ourselves and others — one gets an inkling of why “Into the Woods” seems especially urgent right now. “You may know what you need, but to get what you want, better see that you keep what you have,” the Baker’s Wife declares in a spoken-word production number. One hears in such advice some essential wisdom about the plight of Earth itself.
Gardiner attempts to impose as much order as is possible on the somewhat unwieldy narrative spine of the piece: The Narrator (Christopher Bloch) stumbles upon the overgrown cottage (an evocative rendering of decrepitude by set designer Lee Savage). He fetches a dusty book, the storybook characters emerge from cupboards and fireplaces, and once upon a time begins. We are in a metaphorical woods, as the house becomes the meeting point for the characters to sing, pursue their quests and ultimately explore what happens in the “ever after.”
Of course, one of the pleasures of “Into the Woods” is the fusion of Sondheim and Lapine’s urbane notions, with the seemingly less fraught psyches of characters dreamed up for children’s consumption. So in a resplendent “Agony,” two princes (Kempski and Paul Scanlan) sing hilariously about their irreconcilable missions, of making their princess brides happy while looking for the next damsel in distress. Murray, in a lovely ball gown by costume designer David I. Reynoso, offers an endearing account of Cinderella’s existential indecision in “On the Steps of the Palace.” And Weaver invests “Moment in the Woods” with all the wistfulness you could want in a character who, like so many of the others, is a victim of her own contradictory impulses.
Only in the ambition to get past the glibness of “Into the Woods,” to allow an audience to experience the poignancy of beings who desperately want to be able to write their own happy endings, does this sometimes cold production come across as a little lacking. That’s because the heart of the show is not so much communing with one’s inner child as with an assortment of recognizable grown-ups as troubled as we are. We look to them for a reflection of our own perpetual searches for serenity, and clarity.
Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; set, Lee Savage; costumes, David I. Reynoso; lighting, Amanda Zieve; sound, Eric Norris; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. With Maria Rizzo, Adelina Mitchell, Chani Wereley, Sherri L. Edelen, Lawrence Redmond. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.