Into the Woods
directed by James Lapine
(Image, 1991)

My daughter, just inches shy of 10 years old, loves music. And so, perhaps a little tired of hearing so much Hannah Montana, Hilary Duff and Raven Symone around the house, I decided it was time to expose her to the wonders of musical theater.

Stage one was the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera, which she absolutely adored. Stage two was sitting down to watch a production in the comfort of our own home, and for that the obvious choice was Into the Woods.

Filmed as a stage production at the Martin Beck Theatre in Manhattan in 1991, Into the Woods is a Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine collaboration that blends the stories of several well-known fairytales into one extravaganza. Centered around a childless baker (Chip Zien) and his wife (Joanna Gleason), the tale features appearances by Jack (Ben Wright) of beanstalk fame, Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland), Cinderella (Kim Crosby) and her Prince Charming (Robert Westenberg, who also plays Red's wolf), Rapunzel (Pamela Winslow) and her Prince Charming (Chuck Wagner) and, of course, the witch (an utterly luminous Bernadette Peters) whose machinations put everything into play.

Each story weaves in and around the others as the baker and his wife seek various items needed to break a family curse. Thus, the baker trades a handful of magic beans to Jack for his cow and rescues both Red (to whom he sold the goodies in the first place) and her granny from the wolf in order to gain the red cape, while his wife vies with Cinderella for a slipper and seeks the corn-yellow hair of Rapunzel.

Also in the woods, Red dares Jack to pay a third visit to the giant's kingdom while the two princes seek their true loves -- or at least the ones who will do for now -- and the cow dies. Meanwhile, the bespectacled narrator (Tom Aldredge, who also plays a wild man in the forest) outlines the stories as they progress.

The stories end, as we know they must, happily ever after for all parties concerned. Of course, that's only the end of Act I, and Act II is a whole 'nother tale.

Being a Sondheim musical, there are numerous songs that stick in your head long after the movie is over. As I write this, more than two hours since I watched it (for, bear in mind, like the billionth time), I keep hearing fragments of "Agony," the wonderful duet between princes who don't want love as much as they want whatever they can't have, "It Takes Two," a great moment between the baker and his wife, and "Last Midnight," the witch's haunting departure.

Other standout numbers include the wolf's disturbingly carnal "Hello, Little Girl," Red's sadder-but-wiser solo "I Know Things Now," Cinderella's whimsical quandary "On the Steps of the Palace," the ensemble piece "Your Fault," and "People will Listen," which marks the witch's return to the stage.

There's more, but you get the idea. Sondheim wrote good music.

As for the performances here, it's hard to imagine better. Peters received top billing because of her star power, and she did an incredible job as the blunt and ruthless villainess. Her voice swoops and soars with the kind of strength and emotion you expect from a Broadway vet.

But there are others here who deserve even more attention. Foremost among them is Gleason, who won a Tony for the role. As the baker's wife, she displays a broad range of patience and impetuousness, compassion, joy and even a bit of anger. Zien, as her husband, has a much flatter part to play; it's not 'til the end that his character truly grows, but Zien sells it when it finally occurs.

It's an all-around great cast, from feisty Red to slow-thinking Jack, from yearning Cinderella to the two roving princes. This musical, and particularly this filmed version of the stage production, deserves to be shared again and again.

So, did it pass the Molly test?

At 153 minutes, the production was a little long for one night with our daughter, whose attention wanders freely. On the first night, however, she sat utterly spellbound through Act I, and she couldn't wait to finish the movie. Her interested waned, however, during Act II, which lacks the familiar stories, focuses more on death and disappointment, and wanders a bit more into Sondheim's slower, sadder songs. Still, she came away happy and has said she wants to watch it again, which is a good sign. (Anything that distracts her from reruns of Full House and endless repetitions of the Shrek milieu is a plus in my book.) It's a pity, but she's probably still too young for Sunday in the Park with George.

review by
Tom Knapp

1 December 2007

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