Little Red Riding Hood can sing? Fairy tale theater in ‘Into the Woods’

Avi Small, Writer

While many of us are finally done with exams this week, the quarter system means yet another midterm season is just around the corner. For a student looking for a weekly theatrical fix, it can be hard to find time to travel to Chicago or even Shanley Pavilion to see a show. Netflix, with dozens of movie musicals and recorded theatrical performances, can therefore be a surprisingly helpful resource for the busy — or the sickly — theater lover.

“Into the Woods” is one such Netflix theatrical performance. The original cast of this classic Sondheim  musical shines, even on a laptop screen. “Into the Woods” is the unconventional telling of fairy tales we thought we knew well. We encounter Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack of beanstalk fame, along with three wonderful original Sondheim creations: a down-on-his-luck childless Baker, his clever and acerbic wife and ­a not-so-evil Witch. The show has two distinct acts: Act I tells each fairy tale in a fresh way while Act II explores what happens after “happily ever after.”

Watch this Netflix version of the musical, if only for the wonderful performances. Bernadette Peters as the Witch is spellbinding, even when she is unrecognizable as an ugly crone. Chip Zien impresses as the Baker, the musical’s main character, who has some of the heaviest emotional work to do in the show. The standout, however, is Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. Witty and droll, Gleason turns the Baker’s Wife into the show’s most compelling character and steals the spotlight from Peters’ star turn.

As always, Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics are brilliant (even if James Lapine’s book is less so). This musical is a refreshing turn from the full-cast numbers that are prevalent in most shows. Sondheim gives each of his main characters a solo song which helps us fully understand their characters, such as Cinderella’s “On The Steps of the Palace” and Little Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now.” Gleason, though not the showiest vocalist in the cast, still shines in the musical numbers. “Maybe They’re Magic” is one such example, an exercise in self-delusion and ethical rationalization. While “Into the Woods” slows down significantly in Act II, Sondheim’s music remains the highlight there as well.

Now, I have a special fondness for “Into the Woods” — it was the first musical I ever saw and later was the first in which I ever performed (in the exceedingly minor role of the Prince’s Steward). That’s why I was all the more disappointed this third time I encountered the show. Yes, the cast is talented. Yes, Sondheim has yet again created mind-bending lyrical feats. But “Into the Woods” is just too preachy for its own good. Songs that seemed profound in high school now sound trite. The great moralizing ending, in which Sondheim and Lapine extol the values of family, now feels overwrought. While “Into the Woods” merrily skips along in the fairy-tale Act I, it gets bogged down in the heavy-handed symbolism of Act II.

Watching a musical on Netflix, rather than in a theater, changes the experience, and “Into the Woods” is by no means a perfectly written show. But as a chance to see Bernadette Peters in her prime and Joanna Gleason’s wonderful portrayal of the Baker’s Wife, this Netflix production is well worth a watch.