FOR SOME REASON, PBS' "American Playhouse" has decided to open its 10th season with two works taken from another medium -- the stage.
Tonight, "Into the Woods," the 1988 Stephen Sondheim musical, gets the original cast treatment at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67. Friday night at 9 o'clock, it's the much-lauded stage version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," created and performed by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater.
Bernadette Peters is the star of "Into the Woods," though you won't recognize her for most of the first act as she labors under the heavy weight of all the makeup needed to make her look like an ugly witch. She's still a witch in the second act, but she's one who looks like Bernadette Peters.
"Into the Woods" is a re-telling and interweaving of fairy tales old and new. Sondheim takes equal portions of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, throws in a -- of Rapunzel, mixes in a story of a sterile baker and his barren wife who make a deal with the spell-casting witch who lives next door, simmers it all in a stock of New York street attitude and humor and comes up with this attractive melange.
Basically, he has set up an elaborate scavenger hunt. For the baker and his wife to have a child, they must give the witch the milky white cow for sale by Jack (and they just happen to have some magic beans around to trade), a cape as red as blood, some hair as blond as corn silk and a slipper as pure as gold.
Those directions are given on one side of the stage as the stories of Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk are developing in other parts. Ms. Riding Hood comes skipping through from time to time, initially to buy some bakery items for grandmother.
The action -- and all the cow, cape, hair and slipper trading -- then takes place in The Woods which Sondhein tries to turn into the magical world of the unconscious, the locale of all fairy tales and other works of the imagination, including Rapunzel's castle. The characters are, like the two Dudley Do-Right handsome princes, at once genuine representations of fairy tale figures and parodies of the same.
After various machinations, all ends in happily-ever-after fashion at the close of Act One. But Sondheim brings us back for an examination of what happened after the wishes came true, when the baker's baby was crying and Cinderella was getting bored as a princess and, most alarmingly, when the wife of the giant that Jack killed showed up looking for revenge.
It's all very clever, indeed at times it's a bit too clever, bordering on the look-how-cute-I-am school of writing. And, while it never soars in the way a musical can, when the songs sweep you off your seat and into the fantasy, suspending you high above disbelief, "Into the Woods" is certainly entertaining.
But, while it's well-performed and intelligently-directed, it remains a stage show taped for television, complete with an audience that cackles like hyenas at the slightest hint of humor, as intrusive as the worst laugh track.
This hybrid form has its inherent limitations. You just are not going to appreciate a musical or a play watching it on TV the way you would seeing it in an enclosed theater, with the doors closed and the lights dimmed.
That's not to say that it's not a good thing that PBS exposes us to such works, for most of us would never see these productions in any way, shape or form otherwise. Even if a non-original cast road show came to a nearby facility, the prices charged for a ticket these days are in the prohibitive category that makes much of the live theater an unfortunately elitist institution. PBS does help alleviate that problem.
But it is to say that while presenting and, indeed, underwriting stage shows has been a part of American Playhouse's mission over the last decade, it is not its essential function. This wonderful series was conceived at a time when complaints were rampant that everything good on PBS came from England. American Playhouse set out to show that the U.S. of A. could turn out quality television productions every bit the equal of those from our brethren across the Atlantic.
And, in the last decade, it has done just that with all sorts of wonderful productions. Some, though created for American Playhouse with money from the series, have been of a quality to warrant theatrical release -- "Testament," "El Norte," "Stand and Deliver," to name a few.
But most have been content to live and thrive in this medium that created them. While it is all well and good that American Playhouse is bringing us "Into the Woods" and "The Grapes of Wrath," it would have better if this series had begun its 10th season by celebrating the creative powers, not of the stage, but of television. Because, in essence, that's what American Playhouse is all about.