When you think about it, and Judge Bryan Pope has, fairy tale heroes are rather unpleasant sorts that often meet squishy ends.
Once upon a time.
After examining the works of Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George, writer/director James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim set their sights on the stories of the Brothers Grimm. The resulting hit Broadway musical, 1987's "Into the Woods," was nominated for nine Tony Awards and took home three. It is available on DVD courtesy of Image Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
To end a witch's curse, a baker and his wife venture into the woods and encounter Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), and Rapunzel.
Into the Woods kicks off with an observation about fairy tales that most children's books curiously bypass: The heroes are among the most selfish, conniving, and even thieving characters ever conceived. Think about it: How many times does Jack ascend the beanstalk to steal treasures from a giant who is minding his own business?
In this rendition of several classic tales from the Brothers Grimm, Jack is only one of many characters whose morals are called into question by their despicable actions and ulterior motives. The one possible exception is Rapunzel, who, tucked away high in her tower, is simply a victim of poor parenting. Of course, freed from her prison, she might well be inclined to knock over the neighborhood Maverick Market.
This is not intended as criticism. On the contrary, these flaws make the storybook characters much more three-dimensional than they've ever been before. This is especially true of the gluttonous Red Riding Hood, the slow-witted Jack, the fleet-footed Cinderella, and the witch. To quote the witch—who, ironically, is the most honest one in the bunch—these people are not good, and they're not bad. They're just nice. Come to think of it, they're not even always that. But they're human, and that alone makes this show worth watching.
As if the four stories that constitute Act 1 weren't enough, Lapine creates an ingenious fifth one (about the baker and his wife) to serve as a connector between the other four. The five stories are intricately plotted and seamlessly woven together, but major plot points will still be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever read some version of them. Also, they wrap up just as you'd expect, with Jack slaying the giant, Red Riding Hood escaping the wolf, and Cinderella and Rapunzel each nabbing her prince.
Once Act 2 arrives, though, all bets are off as we move beyond "happily ever after" to find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. You think Cinderella and her prince lived a charmed life together after the curtain came down? Think again. The prince in this fractured fairy tale is quite the cad. (Note that the actor doubles as Red Riding Hood's lascivious and anatomically correct wolf.) Actually, neither Prince Charming is likely to find himself in a Disney cartoon anytime soon.
Still, everyone's wishes have been granted, and they are more or less happy. But then a dark shadow moves across the land, and suddenly everyone is facing the consequences of their actions from Act 1. It seems the giant's wife wants revenge on Jack, who murdered her husband, and she's holding the entire kingdom hostage until he's given to her. This sets off a frenzy of finger-pointing, blame, and death.
If the second act sounds much darker than the first, that's because it is. On the other hand, it's no darker than some of the Grimm brothers' horror stories. ("The Juniper Tree" and "Hansel and Gretel" are the stuff of nightmares.) Some characters meet fates that are, in a word, squishy. Others move on to lives that are, if not happy in the traditional sense, at least full of hope.
Lapine and Sondheim have crafted an imaginative story and taken familiar characters to new and surprising places. Sondheim's now-classic score is playful and infectious, and his lyrics are tight, with not a single word wasted. For proof, look no further than his Act 2 patter song, "Your Fault," which covers a lot of territory at breakneck speed, thanks to Sondheim's economy with words. The large ensemble is flawless and has a fine time tweaking with beloved characters. Joanna Gleason (in her Tony-winning role) and Bernadette Peters are the standouts as the baker's wife and the witch, and Danielle Ferland is great fun as she turns the innocent Red Riding Hood into a wily rascal.
Into the Woods originally aired in 1991 on the PBS television series American Playhouse, and its full-frame presentation is preserved here. It's a very clean transfer that shows off the play's colorful set design and costumes. The only audio option is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. I would have preferred a more dynamic option, but this works well enough. Sondheim's score still sounds lovely, and you won't miss a single word. Alas, the disc includes no subtitles or extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lapine generates an awful lot of plot by intermission, and it threatens to steamroll right over the entire second act. Perhaps realizing this, Lapine slams on the brakes in the last half hour by resorting to an extreme amount of moralizing and lesson-teaching. We get messages about our responsibilities toward ourselves, our children, and our community, and these messages are hammered home by no fewer than three songs (including the now-standard "Children Will Listen" and "No One is Alone").
Despite its cluttered and unsatisfying ending, Into the Woods is one of the most intelligent and cleverly constructed pieces of musical theater this judge has ever seen. Even without extras, this disc is well worth the price, especially if you can find it for $25 or less.
Only an ogre would think to bring charges against this Grimm lineup. Everyone is free to go!
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