Into the Woods (American Playhouse 1991)

I have always been a huge fan of folklore and fables. Grimm and Perault are iconic favorites of mine and I often seek out any adaptation of the work that I can get my hands on. There is a lot out there. I remember being read all of the stories and then reading them myself when I was old enough to read. Each of these stories has elements of fantasy, magic, and danger. Part of what sparked this interest was getting into Disney early on. Of course, the Disney versions were the safe versions. When I got a little older I discovered how dark the original stories really got. It makes sense as many of the stories were inspired by the famous Black Forest in Germany which is a huge, thick and dark forest. I was fascinated by the darkness mixed with the happily ever after, the light and the dark. Every fairytale felt kind of like Halloween in that way. Late in my college days, I actually took a literature class studying fairytales, again mostly focusing on Grimm and Perrault. I was interested to learn even more about different versions of each story and how they connected to each other. Like the connections between The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and the Tiger’s Bride. It remains fascinating and I like to see it riffed on in pop culture (see Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Fables).

Fair warning, before seeing this movie I had already seen the 2014 Disney version starring Meryl Streep. I remember it fondly and I do listen to music from it now and then (mostly “Agony”). I thought it was a good movie but I remember people freaking out about it before it came out. I have known plenty of people who had a great love for the stage version. When I worked at a regional theater in New Jersey, I met quite a few people who had done the show either in high school or college. It seemed to be one of Sondheim’s more school-friendly shows as the subject matter is accessible and there are a lot of characters to get a lot of kids on stage. Later, I met a guy who was absolutely obsessed with the show because he had been in it and seen it so many times. He was the one who I witnessed worrying about the Disney version. Sometimes it can be tough for people to anticipate an adaptation of something they love. For me, it is exciting because I am not so strict on following the original story or format. From what I understood, the Disney version changed a lot from the original but kept a lot of the show’s spirit which I think is the most important part. Also, they got a good singing performance out of Meryl Streep which was in doubt after Mamma Mia.

The first thing I noticed was how the production values were beautiful. This makes sense as that is what I did for a living for a while. The sets kind of looked like a book where you flip open panels to see different scenes. There were a lot of things that seemed to be done poorly on purpose for comic effect. It felt like something you would see in stage versions of Monty Python sketches. A lot of credit to The American Playhouse which put on this production. The lighting and special effects are really beautiful. They did a good job of lighting the actors while also giving the show a dreamy, shadowy feel. This matches the comedy of the show. The show feels funnier than the movie version mostly because it involves actors playing to the audience and getting immediate feedback. One of the biggest production differences that made an immediate impact was the narrator. In the movie version, they had one of the characters as the narrator. Here, the Narrator is an omniscient character outside of the story so we get more from him. They also kept the Witch and the Mysterious Stranger separate which makes a bit more sense in the end.

The actors did a really great job as well. I would be remiss if I did not start out by paying homage to one of the great queens of stage musicals by mentioning Bernadette Peters. She has developed a reputation as a legend for good reason and she does justice to the role of The Witch, a great archetype from folktales. Though villainous, she has great comic timing. Tom Aldredge plays the Narrator and he has a great dry wit to him. I had to look him up at intermission because I thought he might be David Straitharn and that is definitely a compliment. Chip Zien plays The Baker and he is lovably goofy and pathetic. Joanna Gleason plays The Baker’s Wife who is a great foil for Zien and she has a beautiful singing voice. Chuck Wagner and Robert Westenberg play the two princes and they are just as goofy and vain as they should be. Danielle Ferland plays Little Red and she is great at being the petulant little brat. Ben Wright plays Jack well as a poor, simple young man with a kind heart.

Overall, I loved this production. While the Disney version was definitely good, they cut out a lot to fit in under a two hour running time and to simplify the story. It feels like they also cut out a lot of the really charming and funny parts. This version felt funnier. In turn, it made the dark parts of the show even darker but less depressing. That was my one complaint about the Disney version now that I think of it. This show felt like a lot more fun. I also felt that this version had rougher edges which were natural for a live performance. Still, that is what we love about live performances. I can now see exactly what people saw in this show.


(Written on 4/6/19)

4 Responses to “Into the Woods (American Playhouse 1991)”

  1. Sharon E. Cathcart Says:

    A long-ago boyfriend of mine played the Steward in an exceptionally good production of “Into the Woods.” It’s a favorite show of mine, in spite of him. ;-)


  2. Deborah Weber Says:

    I love this production as well – I’ve watched it a couple of times over the years which isn’t something I often do, And now that you’ve reminded me of it, I’ll be hitting Netflix again.


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