Muny puts the magic back in fairy tales

Believe. The Muny’s largest audience for an opening night this season witnessed perfection in the extraordinary premiere of “Into the Woods” on Tuesday.

Touching, tender, funny and bittersweet, the show wasn’t just filled with one or two memorable moments, but featured many of them.

Since it won three Tonys in 1987, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine richly textured collaboration has gained in stature, enhanced by the popularity of the Disney film last Christmas. But it had never been staged at The Muny until now.

This emotionally powerful production surpassed my already high expectations. Top-tier talent expertly articulated the beautiful material and message, their sense of community palpable, their glorious voices penetrating our hearts, and their storytelling abilities inspiring.

The show brings classic fairy tale characters together in a mythical setting, and gives their intertwining quests depth and meaning — Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, along with a childless Baker and his wife, a Narrator and a cunning Witch. Relationships between parents and children is a strong theme, as is holding on to your hopes and dreams. The consequences of what you wish for is explored with both pathos and humor.

The audience was invested from august Narrator Ken Page’s first mellifluous words “Once upon a time.” We were enthralled by the cast of Broadway all-stars and Muny favorites honoring Sondheim’s clever and insightful lyrics and Lapine’s sharp wit and perceptive book. Their heartfelt interpretations and crisp enunciation were a joy to behold. Music director Brad Haak captured every nuance of Sondheim’s lush, complex score.

The elegant and hypnotic Heather Headley, Tony winner for Best Actress in a Musical for “Aida,” displayed how magnetically she commands a stage as well as her luscious voice. Her rendition of ‘Children Will Listen” brought me to tears.

The principal characters thoughtfully defined their roles, bringing out the yearning and handling well-placed comical lines. Fan favorite Rob McClure, a superb showman, deftly depicted the Baker’s frustrations, while Broadway vet Erin Dilly was a good foil as the Baker’s Wife.

Sara Kapner, notable as Wednesday Addams last summer, crisply conveyed the plucky Little Red. Another standout is Elena Shaddow as a conflicted Cinderella, with superlative vocals.

Andrew Samonsky, Jimmy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” three years ago, was strong both as the cunning Wolf and Cinderella’s charming prince. He and Ryan Silverman as Rapunzel’s prince were sincerely insincere, their “Agony” a delightful duet.

Young Broadway star Jason Gotay was impressive as Jack, while the always enjoyable seasoned pro Zoe Vonder Haar put her distinctive spin on Jack’s Mother. Samantha Massell, lovely as Jasmine in “Aladdin,” returned as the golden-throated (and locked) Rapunzel. Michael McCormick’s contributions as the Mysterious Man were signficant, too.

Director Gary Griffin did not overthink the material, fluidly weaving the tales with seamless use of Michael Schweikardt’s functional multi-purpose set and turntable. He imbued this ensemble of exceptional quality with passion and purpose.

Because both the audience and the performers knew how special this show is, there was a poignant connection that you could feel. Like all the best bedtime stories and children’s literature we return to over and over for comfort — “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Polar Express” and “The Princess Bride” among them — we find out we’re not alone. This show’s penultimate “No One Is Alone” is one of the masterpieces of musical theater, movingly sung by Shaddow, Kapner, McClure and Gotay.

“Into the Woods” is a show that has come to mean a lot to many people. One of my favorites, it resonates more with each revisit, never better than Tuesday.

While each show this season has been fantastic in its own way, I won’t soon forget this one, finally realized on that magnificent stage, and splendid in every way. I will cherish how it reminded me of how invigorating and illuminating live theater can be, touching my soul.

A group of 8,000 went into Forest Park to share a midsummer night experience and discovered magic and wonder at the Muny once again. “Into the Woods” turned the elusive “happily ever after” into a possibility.

At a glance

What: “Into the Woods”

When: 8:15 nightly through Monday

Tickets: www.muny.org; 314-361-1900