The paradox of Into the Woods is that it’s my all-time favorite Sondheim musical — maybe my favorite musical ever — and I basically never want to see it performed. It is so important to me that I can’t bear to be disappointed, and more often than not… I am. I don’t have this problem with other shows that I love, but other shows I love didn’t immortalize their perfect original casts on an episode of PBS’s American Playhouse that my dad recorded onto a VHS tape which I wore out through incessant childhood viewings. There is no musical I know better than Into the Woods, because the original production was imprinted on me at a very young age. I don’t just know every line; I know every Bernadette Peters inflection. And so while there have been many subsequent iterations of Into the Woods — some good, some probably even great — I have struggled to appreciate them without a tiny voice in the back of my head saying, “Well, yes, but that’s not how Joanna Gleason did it.”
I offer that prologue to make it clear that when I say I adored the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production of Into the Woods, I really, truly mean it. I’ll admit that I had reservations about going (see above!), but I’d never been to the HVSF, and I was promised a bus that would take me from Lincoln Center to the festival with time for a picnic before the show, so I figured it would be, at the very least, a pleasant excursion. (It’s August, and any activity that takes me out of this simmering fetid garbage palace of a city is a pleasant excursion. I love New York.) Once we saw the gorgeous tent, however, I actually got excited for the show itself. There’s something so enchanting about theater outdoors, and I say that as an indoor kid. And given that Into the Woods takes place — spoilers! — in the woods, it felt extra appropriate to be seeing it in that context. Did I love the skunk smell that wafted in shortly before the show began? No. Did I gasp when the wind picked up just as Cinderella knelt at her mother’s grave? Reader, I did. That is unplanned theater magic, with a friendly assist from nature.
I love the way this production makes such great use of its surroundings — you know, the woods. OK, it’s not the woods, exactly, but with the right lighting and enough trees, the Hudson Valley turns out to be a fairly convincing facsimile. Without the limitations of a theater, this Into the Woods is able to portray the scope of its setting. Cinderella falling on her ass has always been one of the show’s more delightful throughlines, but actually seeing Cinderella running past trees with the Prince and his Steward in pursuit gives the production a rich, immersive quality that would be nearly impossible to replicate on a traditional stage. While we’re on the subject of Cinderella, I wanted to take a moment to praise Laura Darrell’s performance — she was easily one of the highlights of the production for me. Really, I was thrilled with almost everyone in the cast, particularly Britney Simpson as the Baker’s Wife. She made the role her own while staying true to the character I hold so dear to my heart. The tiny voice in the back of my head was shook: “That’s not how Joanna Gleason did it, and I’m not even mad!”
I talk about Into the Woods a lot. Some might say too often, which is rude. But I really do consider it to be one of the formative texts of my life, a piece of theater that had an incalculable influence on the way I see the world. I still turn to the show for guidance. Four years ago, when I delivered the homily for Sondheimas — you know, the annual celebration of the birth of our savior, Stephen Sondheim — I said, “I can’t remember the last time I made a decision that didn’t involve consulting ‘Moments in the Woods.’ It’s the perfect anthem for someone as anxious and indecisive and Jewish as I am. The older I get, the more I realize that having it all is a fallacy. Believe me, I know: I’ve tried to be bicoastal. But I’m also OK with life as a sometimes disappointing but often wonderful work in progress.” Seeing the HVSF production — fresh and distinctive while still recognizable as the show I have spent my life loving — was a stirring reminder of why the themes of the musical have always resonated with me (and why I’m perfectly comfortable referring to Sondheim as a deity).
And at the same time, it hit me in new, sometimes deeply uncomfortable ways, because it’s 2019 and we are very much in the woods and it’s frankly impossible not to view entertainment through the lens of our current hellscape. Part of what’s so miraculous about Into the Woods is that it always feels relevant — the timelessness of fairy tales mingled with the universal wisdom of the morals that it preaches. I thought about how the show speaks to personal accountability and the importance of community, the sacrifices we have to make even at the risk of our own comfort and selfish desires. That must have hit hard in the “greed is good” ‘80s, and it sure as hell hits hard now. Which is not to say that I couldn’t ever relax and enjoy the show, just that I found some of its resonance to be a little painful, both in a larger “the world is bad” sense and in terms of where I am in life at this particular moment in the woods. I encourage you to make the trip and see the HVSF production for yourself to discover what you take from it. It runs through September 8, and well, you know what they say about opportunity not being a lengthy visitor.
Photo via the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.