Originally published on August 15, 2019 by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal (‘Into the Woods’ Review: Stunning Simplicity).
The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, one of the finest outdoor summer companies on the East Coast, is now adding musicals to its regular repertory of plays by Shakespeare and more modern works in a classical vein.
To this end, Davis McCallum, Hudson Valley’s artistic director, has brought in Jenn Thompson, whose Goodspeed Musicals revivals of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Music Man” and “Oklahoma!” were of the highest possible quality, to stage “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim ’s fractured-fairy-tale parable of innocence and experience. It’s a logical choice for a troupe that performs under a spacious tent pitched on a wooded bluff overlooking the Hudson River, and the results are a triumph for all parties concerned.
“Into the Woods” gets done a lot—a whole lot—but I haven’t seen it done this well since the original 1987 Broadway production.
The hallmark of Ms. Thompson’s version is its visual simplicity: There is no set, only a hoop, five green umbrellas, a few wooden chairs and crates, the plain dirt floor of the playing area and a natural backdrop of trees and sky, all employed with the utmost resourcefulness. This makes for a consistency of tone and tension that helps to paper over the unevenness of James Lapine ’s book. The first act, in which Cinderella ( Laura Darrell ), Little Red Riding Hood ( Kayla Coleman ), Rapunzel (Kendall Cafaro) and Beanstalk Jack ( Brandon Dial ) are confronted by a witch (Leenya Rideout), a wolf ( Rhett Guter ) and an unseen giant, is perfect, a miracle of farce-comedy construction that runs for 90 minutes but feels far shorter, especially in Ms. Thompson’s light-footed staging. Not so the second act, in which we learn that growing up isn’t easy (stop press!). It is by turns maudlin and didactic, a combination that has never brought out the best in Mr. Sondheim, though Ms. Thompson is unfazed by the mawkish sentimentality of “No One Is Alone” (“Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood / Do not let it grieve you, / No one leaves for good”). Even the very best productions of “Into the Woods” thus have a tendency to lose altitude after intermission—but this one stays exhilarating from start to finish.
The 14-person ensemble cast is a mix of satisfyingly familiar faces ( Jason O’Connell, Ms. Rideout, Nance Williamson ) and exciting new finds (in particular Ms. Darrell, the most unselfconsciously endearing Cinderella imaginable). Not only can they all act, but they can sing, too, negotiating their demanding vocal parts without a hint of discomfort. And despite the fact that Mr. Sondheim’s scores are notoriously tricky to execute, the four-piece pit band, led by Amanda Morton, plays this one with unflappable exactitude. For a company new to musicals to perform a Sondheim show with such precision and self-confidence is supremely impressive.
The audience at Tuesday’s performance knew how good a show it was seeing, and responded accordingly. So did I. Not for the first time, I went home from one of Ms. Thompson’s productions asking, “Why has this remarkable woman never been invited to direct a Broadway musical?”