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Into the Woods (The Original Broadway Production)
Originally hitting the stage in 1986, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods is a comic collision of famous fairy tales, bringing Jack and his magic beanstalk into the same story as Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood, among others. As Disney's big-budget movie adaptation, featuring Meryl Streep as the Witch, is about to hit screens, Image is bringing the original 1986 production to home video, in the form of a special performance recorded for the US public television program "American Playhouse" in 1991. This performance features all but one of the original cast members, including Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason as the baker husband and wife who set the story in motion, and Bernadette Peters as the villainous witch.
The Baker and the Baker's wife first meet the Witch when she reveals herself as having cursed them with an inability to have children. She's willing to restore their fertility, but only if they retrieve four items for her: a milky white cow, a blood red cape, a lock of hair like yellow corn, and a golden slipper. Desperate for a child, the husband and wife run off into the woods where the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel provide opportunities for the couple to obtain the necessary items before their three-day time limit runs out. The second act of the play then delves into the ripple effects their actions have on everyone from the Witch on down.
Although Into the Woods is approaching its' 30th anniversary, it seems incredibly contemporary. Spoofs are nothing new -- Monty Python and the Holy Grail covered semi-similar ground before Woods' debut, and The Princess Bride came soon after -- but the specific delivery or tone of sarcasm in the play feels very 21st century, as if the show is following in the footsteps of movies like Shrek or Tangled rather than being the progenitor of them. Disney's movie version will undoubtedly be sanitized of some of the more biting gags, including Cinderella's evil sisters literally hacking off heels and toes trying to squash their feet into her shoe, but these are the moments that keep Woods comically up to date.
Similarly, the play's emphasis on funny roles for women also feels nicely of the moment. Gleason, Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood), Kim Crosby (Cinderella), Barbara Bryne (Jack's Mother), and of course Peters are all very funny, sinking their teeth into the show's many juicy punchlines, many of which are delivered in song. As one would expect of a cast with over 750 performances under their belt, their collective timing is excellent, hitting each laugh line with a delivery that is simultaneously practiced yet still captures an off-handed quippiness. That's not to say the men aren't funny -- Zien is wonderfully animated, and Chuck Wagner, looking distractingly George Clooney-esque, is a delight as Rapunzel's Prince -- just that the women are funnier. Peters takes particular delight chewing the scenery as the old and crotchety version of the Witch, even talking to a couple of nearby audience members at one point.
As someone more familiar with movie musicals than stage musicals, it takes a moment to get used to Sondheim's loose, fluid use of the music. At the beginning, songs are short or seem to drift in and out of each other, with less of a distinct beginning and end. As the play progresses, they become more clearly defined, with highlights including "Giants in the Sky", a cost-saving summary of Jack's adventure; "On the Steps of the Palace", sung by Cinderella as she contemplates how to escape the pitch spread on the stairs to stop her from running from a third palace celebration; and "Agony", a duet sung by Rapunzel and Cinderella's princes as they search for their respective lady loves. Personally, the only one that left me cold was "Hello, Little Girl", sung by the Wolf (Robert Westenberg, also Cinderella's prince) when he encounters Red in the forest on her way to Granny's. Although the choreography is generally simple, the numbers are accentuated by the show's impressive sets, which constantly shift and transform as the scenes unfold.
Woods' second act has a bit less humor in it, stemming from the shift from wacky hijinks to strategies on how to escape from a giant out for revenge, although Sondheim and Lapine include a scene where the play's dramatic narrator (Tom Aldredge) is suddenly noticed by the characters and offered up as a potential sacrifice to the monster. Still, the second half gives Peters the opportunity to play an entirely different side of her character, and Gleason continues to shine throughout the second half. It's easy to see why Hollywood has been trying to bring it to theaters since shortly after it premiered, yet it will be funny if this television broadcast version, still funny and exciting all these years later, remains more contemporary and memorable than the version that finally makes it to the silver screen.
A fairly modern-looking digital painting of Little Red Riding Hood striding into the woods adorns the front of Image's one-disc Blu-ray edition, with the white cow, golden slipper, and Rapunzel's tower somewhat awkwardly slipped around the edges. Although a red banner announces this as the original Broadway production, I imagine fans of the show would've preferred to see the original poster art for the production used instead of this new illustration, which is generic and indistinguishable from much of the artwork used on Blu-rays and DVDs these days. The release comes in an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.33:1 1080p AVC, this Blu-ray version of Into the Woods is an upconversion; there is no 35mm negative or a high-definition master to work with. Therefore, the video of this presentation is likely to disappoint those who already own the program on DVD, as this often looks minimally better than SD, with almost no fine detail, waxy skin texture, drab colors, aliasing, bleeding, burned-out whites, and other analog issues. There is no doubt this is as good as the original broadcast materials could ever look on home video, but it's a pretty underwhelming image, one that doesn't get much out of the bump in definition.
The sound fares a little bit better than the picture on the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which pulls back just a bit more of the standard-def fog. While listening, the acoustics of the playhouse can be heard in the dialogue and music, which gives the track a certain natural authenticity. The limitations of the source means the track doesn't contain the kind of nuance and range that one expects from high-definition audio, but there's a sense that this is more of an improvement from the original television broadcast than the image is. No subtitles or captions are provided.
EDIT (12/17/2014): This was my first time seeing this production of Into the Woods, so I had no previous experience of watching it to compare it to. However, fans have reported on several forums that, listening to the DVD edition, it's apparent that the Blu-ray has a mono soundtrack presented as stereo, and that directional separation is far better on the DVD. It is being described as likely a technical error or gaffe on Image Entertainment's part. UPDATE (12/19/2014): Image has committed to offering replacement discs due to the error in the audio track. UPDATE (03/01/2015): To receive a replacement, send the back cover (no copies) of the jacket, including UPC barcode to:
Attn: CUSTOMER SERVICE
6320 Canoga Avenue, 8th Floor
Woodland Hills, CA 91367
Please include the return address of the replacement disc. Print legibly. You will receive a brand new sealed copy. The corrected barcode is 014381002539.
This is one of those discs that basically "does what it says on the tin." This is the 1991 television broadcast of the original cast performing the show, it looks and sounds only slightly better than it did when it aired on TV. Free of captions and extras, it includes nothing more, nothing less. It's a release geared more for those who are already familiar with the play than it is newcomers, and for that crowd, it can be reasonably (if not effusively) recommended.
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