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Into the Woods

Into the Woods
Image Entertainment
1990 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 153 min. / Street Date July 21, 1998 / 29.99
Starring Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason, Tom Aldredge, Robert Westenberg, Kim Crosby, Danielle Ferland, Ben Wright, Barbara Bryne, Merle Louise, Chuck Wagner
Television Lighting Richard Nelson, Danny Franks
Settings Designer Tony Straiges
Costumes Designer Ann Hould-Ward
Film Editor Girish Bhargava
Original Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim
Written by James Lapine
Produced by Michael Brandman and Iris Merlis
Directed by James Lapine

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A delightful cluster of fractured fairy tales, the Broadway musical Into the Woods has great music, comedy, and heart. It examines the universal concerns behind the magic and humor: Our desires, our problems and our fears in the real world. And in a daring midpoint twist, it becomes a parable that ranges way beyond the realm of children's stories.


To remove the curse of a Witch (Bernadette Peters) preventing them from having children, the Baker (Chip Zien) and his wife (Joanna Gleason) go into the woods to gather several magical items. There they meet Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland), who's just escaped the clutches of the Wolf (Robert Westenberg) and enlist the aid of a number of characters from other stories (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel). The search becomes entangled with a half-dozen familiar storylines, yet all is straightened out by the time intermission rolls around ... after which the show does a complete reversal on our expectations, pitting the characters this time against the often insoluble problems of the real world.

A new big-scale stage production of Into the Woods in Los Angeles prompted Savant to ask Image Entertainment for this older catalog title, a full-on video version of the stage show recorded in 1990. It's a marvel, plain and simple, from Sondheim's melodic songs to his great characterizations. A generally spoofy tone does no harm whatsoever to the story, in which familiar storybook characters take on human dimensions. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is a selfish glutton and her Wolf comes off as a rapist-murderer. The Witch's curses are meted out for very real reasons. There's a definite class difference between a baker's wife and the princesses who flee into the woods to avoid their worthless, vain princes. The dialogues given these characters are often hilarious ("Dwarfs are very upsetting!") and the songs pierce straight to their heart's desires - Children Will Listen, Giants in the Sky.

Lapine and Sondheim are known for their radical dramatic structures, but Into the Woods is audience-friendly. The various intrigues seem to have sorted themselves out at the mid-point, but then the playwrights push their characters into a life beyond 'happily ever after', where princesses find out their perfect mates aren't so perfect, and even the most powerful characters have painful lessons to learn. Worse yet, instead of simple dangers to overcome, they must face a terrible force that invades the fairyland to destroy them all. The set storybook characters have to grow into real people, accepting responsibility and loss. Only by having courage against an unknown fate and by forming new 'families' is there any hope of survival.

The show thus becomes serious, while staying firmly in make-believe land: We can interpret the monstrous force that's killing everyone any way we wish. Unlike The Birds, the threat can be traced to definite human crimes. Most of fairyland tries to run away, and the responsible characters that fight to survive are forced to forget about placing the blame. Into the Woods is about responsibilities that fairy tale people don't have to face, but we do: Parenthood, commitment, even terrible crimes against society that secretly originate with our own misdeeds.

Into the Woods is a full course of theatrical excitement, an entertaining, accessible and intelligent musical show. The cast is composed mostly of NYC stage stars of the kind who show up only as minor characters in Woody Allen films. Danielle Ferland sings a song in Radio Days, and the great Joanna Gleason is familiar from Hannah and her Sisters, Boogie Nights and various TV series. But another fine talent, Chip Zien, works in soap operas and has accomplishments on his resumé such as providing the voice for the ill-fated Howard the Duck. Bernadette Peters of course gets the most attention for her impressive Witch, acting and singing up a storm through a gnarled mask.

Image's DVD of Into the Woods is from a videotaped television show (shown first on PBS, I believe) that is excellently directed and covered. It doesn't try to escape artificial stage trappings - Jack's Cow is still made of plastic, as it should remain - but the settings and costumes are more than enough to inspire the suspension of disbelief. A literal film version with 'real' settings and splashy special effects would dissipate the impact of this great show.

The disc has no extras to speak of. Image offers discs of Sunday in the Park with George and Follies and Warnes now offers a DVD of the operatic Sweeney Todd.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Into the Woods rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 21, 2002

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