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A baker and his wife journey into the woods in search of a cow, a red cape, a pair of golden slippers and some magic beans to lift a curse that has kept them childless. Tony Award winners Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason and the rest of the original Broadway cast weave their magic spell over you in Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, directed by James Lapine, a seamless fusion of fairy tale characters and what happens after "happily ever after. "With oft-recorded songs such as "Children Will Listen" and "No One is Alone," "Into the Woods" is a music lover's delight from start to finish--and will forever cement Stephen Sondheim's unparalleled position as the giant of the American musical theater.
Fractured fairy tales of a darker hue provide the remarkable context for Into the Woods, which deconstructs the Brothers Grimm by way of Rod Serling. While the faces and names are familiar, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and company inhabit a sylvan neighborhood in which witches and bakers are next-door neighbors, handsome princes from once-parallel fables are competitive and equally vain brothers, and all the stories intersect through unexpected new plot twists.
Stephen Sondheim's Tony-winning score favors intricate ensemble numbers that present the characters' divergent, then overlapping fears and desires. And it's the latter category that provides a primary thread to James Lapine's ingenious puzzle of a book, which coheres around the inevitability--and treachery--of our innermost wishes. That theme is given farcical energy in the first act, which offers enough comic invention, tart dialogue, and witty music for a satisfying evening of theater as is.
Instead, Sondheim and Lapine offer a bold, darker second act that takes a look at what happens after "happily ever after," elevating the work beyond inspired parody toward allegorical gravity. By the final scenes, with the one-two punch of the score's two most enduring songs, "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen," what began as a clever diversion has touched deeper nerves and primed some tear ducts. This video production by the original Broadway cast gets its marquee shimmer from Bernadette Peters's wonderful witch, but the standout and Tony winner as Best Actress is Joanna Gleason, who gives the Baker's Wife a mixture of warmth, pragmatism, and sudden, poignantly romantic radiance.
The DVD version is comparatively no-frills, given its American Playhouse origins, but multiformat digital audio renders the musical performances in immaculate detail. --Sam Sutherland