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TV REVIEW : PBS Goes 'Into the Woods' Tonight : Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's intricate juxtapositions of lyrics, events and mood are well-served in 'American Playhouse' adaptation.


Stephen Sondheim once described his "Into the Woods" with characteristic simplicity as a musical about parents and children. Yes, but. Just as Sondheim is incapable of resisting intricacy in words and music, so the book for "Into the Woods," written by its director James Lapine, is an intricate and poetic exploration of the deeper woods one enters after happily-ever-after has come and gone.

The musical, which airs at 8 tonight on "American Playhouse" (Channels 28 and 15), has rarely been more satisfying, particularly when you consider that since its earliest exposure at the San Diego Old Globe in 1986, this is a show that has never had more than a temperate critical reception.

That reserve was engendered by the starkness of the change of mood between Acts I and II--a plunge off the high-diving board that still baffles an audience, much as the differences between Acts I and II of "Sunday in the Park With George" left other audiences disgruntled. "Into the Woods" didn't turn out to be quite the fairy tale everyone had expected.

"Know what you want," warns the show's generic witch (a beautifully pinched Bernadette Peters), who doesn't listen to her own advice and loses her magical powers when she achieves her desire to become beautiful.

From that clever and funny first half in which Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and a childless Baker and his Wife (with a tug at Rapunzel) all make wishes that are in danger of being realized, we leap to a finish in which they are. Act II is then devoted to dealing with the more somber and sobering trade-offs that follow so much wishful thinking and exertion.

This "American Playhouse" production is a clone of the one that launched the show on Broadway in 1987. The cast is terrific. And better than on stage, where our attention is of necessity more divided, the camera captures the show's pointillist juxtapositions of lyrics, events and mood, reminiscent of "Sunday in the Park"--especially in the second act, where reality takes its severest toll.

There is paradoxically more room on television to appreciate the full measure of a ballad such as "No More," with its inlaid rhymes and complex patterns. And while the contradiction of "No One Is Alone" persists, it seems only to accentuate the helplessness of human accommodation at the end.

As with so much of Sondheim, anyone who enjoys his work is likely to enjoy it more than ever here, under a magnifier, where each tendril and buckle in the weave is as discernible as the elaborate richness of the fabric.

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