Review: A Uniquely Fresh, “Into The Woods” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

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  • Pia Haas, Contributing Critic - New York

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has done it again and this time with music.  Now in its 33rd Summer season, the company presents its first-ever musical. This aesthetically modernized version of “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is an unusually unique romp into the woods realized by the dazzlingly creative mind of director, Jenn Thompson.  She unleashes us into a world of imaginative umbrellas, popcorn, puppets and recyclable cows, all used to tell her version of this well loved and occasionally overdone musical in our community.  

I have long loved this musical, unfortunately, having sat through multiple incantations of it with different faces for the last 30 years, I’m not always convinced it will hold my interest. Knowing HVSF’s commitment to creating new forms, I was curious about how they would breathe new life into this old classic. After enjoying a beautiful picnic with friends on the grounds of Boscobel, whose scenic views are worth the price of admission, I made my way to my seat feeling, to quote a favorite character in the show, Little Red Riding Hood, “Excited and Scared.” The lights switched on and the actors moved towards their beginning positions as if carried by our Hudson River. They stood simply in position ready to attempt the looming task as a company of actors who sing.  They were surrounded by little to no set pieces. Only what was absolutely needed to tell the tale. Gone were the traditional houses and painted trees of versions past. In this moment it was clear, we were about to see something entirely NEW. My mind shouted the words of a loved character from Chekhov’s, The Seagull “What we need’s a new kind of theatre.  New Forms are what we need, and if we haven’t got them, we’d be a sight better off with nothing at all.”  This is a new form that did away with all expectations and created something that pulled me in from the moment those loved opening words “ONCE UPON A TIME.”

All at once, we are transported into the magical world of children's fairy tales. I was mesmerized and could not look away from the detail that vibrated each scene where all our favorites collide: Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, The Witch, Princesses, A couple of Bakers, Rapunzel and many others all looking for their happy ending.  This lusting after each one’s happiness sends them travelling Into The Woods to see, to sell, to get and to bring about this happiness. Once Happily Ever Afters are achieved, we are exposed to Act 2 which goes a bit deeper into the woods uncovering the characters own purpose of existence beyond the Happy Ending. 

The lovely open view from the tent as the show’s backdrop, enhances the simplicity with which this beloved musical is presented. The characters used it to their advantage by skipping, running and galloping across the lengthy backdrop and into the space to delight us over and over.

Jenn Thompson, director, is a remarkable woman and visionary. She inserts surprises around every corner to further pique our interest.  And just when we think we know what to expect a pair of googly-eyed glasses informs us that we have no idea what’s coming next.

Creative, superbly unique costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, atmospheric, beautiful lighting by Matthew Richards, spot on, well-conceived sound design by Ken Travis, cleverly imaginative properties by Joshua Yocom, and the whimsical choreography by Rhett Guter, all added greatly to the Magic! The orchestra of four, led by Musical Director, Amanda Morton was terrific!

This show is a gem! And it only has one more week. There should not be an available seat under the tent.

INTO THE WOODS through September 8th at The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route NY-9D Garrison, NY, 10524.  Phone: 845-265-9575

email: boxoffice@hvshakespeare.org . Website: www.HVShakespeare.org