This Tony Award-winning musical doesn’t need more praise from me for its marvelously intricate reworking of the classic fairy tales ”Cinderella,” ”Little Red Riding Hood,” ”Jack and the Beanstalk,” and ”Rapunzel.” The music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are precise and witty without sacrificing the powerful emotions that give fairy tales their resonance; the performances are uniformly wonderful, especially Bernadette Peters as the mean but agreeably wacky witch who sets the action in motion.
But you probably know that Into the Woods is terrific; my main job here is to tell you whether or not it works as television. This production is straightforward: It’s a film of one of the show’s 1989 Broadway performances — you can hear the audience laughing, clapping, and coughing. This sort of television adaptation is always tricky, because while the actors are making elaborate gestures aimed at the back rows, the TV cameras are moving in for close-ups; when filmed or edited clumsily, even a great show can look overstated and obvious. The American Playhouse presentation, directed by Woods librettist James Lapine, avoids these pitfalls. Most of the time he places the camera so that the viewer has an orchestra seat about midway back; close-ups are limited to quick reaction shots. The result is a first-rate evening at the theater that you can enjoy sitting on your couch.