Nice is Different Than Good: Sondheim in the Park with Into the Woods – July 29, 2012

Once upon a time…

One of the magical aspects of live theatre is its inherent ability to transport the audience to another place and time, through words and music, costumes and sets (and a dash of special effects thrown in for good measure). While watching a theatrical performance indoors, be it in a school auditorium or a Broadway or off-Broadway theatre is thrilling, there is a different kind of something when watching a theatrical performance outdoors, and especially when the outdoor location is in Central Park in New York City. Shakespeare in the Park is an annual summer event presented by the Public Theater where fully staged productions are performed at the Delacorte Theater, located on the Upper West Side.

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the series, and I had the opportunity to see Into the Woods, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s musical mash-up of familiar fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), etc. interwoven with an original tale about a childless Baker and his Wife. Wishes are made and fulfilled, but typical of Sondheim musicals, “happily ever after” is not always the case, preconceptions are dispelled and life lessons are imparted. [Interesting side note: Into the Woods marks the third Sondheim musical I have seen in 2012 thus far – the other two being the amazing Broadway revival of Follies and the City Center’s Encores production of Merrily We Roll Along  – and the first time I had seen three different productions from the same composer.]

Another great thing about Shakespeare in the Park is that tickets are free, though tickets can be purchased though donating to the Public Theater; two ways of obtaining the sought out (free) tickets – either waiting on the stand-by line or the virtual ticketing lottery – I was able to attend via the latter option, by invitation from a friend of mine. Thankfully the evening was a bit overcast, and mildly warm; it had rained (lightly and briefly) earlier that afternoon, so it was not as humid as it was earlier in the day. Walking through the park en route to the theater was refreshing, and there was still a good amount of people waiting on the stand-by line, and a (typically) longer line for the ladies restroom.

“The woods are just trees / the trees are just wood…”

The set design was inspired, having the look of an elaborate tree house, with stairs, ladders and walkways for at least three levels; there were stage-built trees onstage, adding to the illusion of being in the woods. The illusion was further enhanced by the very real trees that were situated beyond the theater, as well as the occasional birds that flew and chirped by; inevitably, the illusion was shattered periodically with the all too familiar rumble from a passing airplane. These things do happen, I suppose. There were some other unique aspects of this production, one of which was that the Narrator was a child of ten or eleven years of age, who sought solace in the woods after an argument with his father (to which had been alluded at the very start); this inclusion further explored the show’s theme of the ever-changing and complex relationship between a parent and a child.

As to be expected the cast was astounding, especially Donna Murphy as the Witch, conveying humor, malice and pathos with equal ferocity serving as the instigator, catalyst, and moral compass for the various characters who venture into the woods to fulfill their own desires and wishes. Another interesting footnote is Chip Zien, who had been the Baker in the original production, being cast as the Mysterious Man, who turns out to be (spoiler alert!) the Baker’s father; Denis O’Hare, who portrayed the Baker with great depth of emotion, also doubled as the father to the narrator, thus perpetuating the theme of fathers and sons.  Also honorable mention goes to the puppetry that went into portraying the Giant (who usually appears as just a looming shadow), voiced by Glenn Close – seeing the Giant appear amongst the trees was nothing short of fantastic, and the use of large umbrellas to symbolize the giant beanstalk.

Into the Woods runs through August 25, 2012* and it is well worth the effort to obtain tickets, despite the chance of the weather is unbearably hot and humid as it typically does in August; also the added nuance of actually being in the woods (OK, technically speaking, in the park) makes for a magical evening fitting for watching a fairy tale adventure.

Updated 08/07/12:  It has been announced that the production will extend another week, ending its run on September 1, 2012.

Update 08/14/12:  Despite the rather mixed-to-negative reviews from the critics, it seems that there is still talk about moving this production to Broadway – while I thoroughly enjoyed this production (regardless of what the critics think), I don’t think the show would benefit from the transfer. The innate charm of this production is its performance space, with Central Park as a counterpart and even an extension of the overall set design and the outdoor atmosphere. As dusk turns to (nearly) midnight as the tale unfolds around the audience, it emphasizes and enhances the turn of events that befall the characters. Take those elements away and it’ll just be like any other revival – the last Broadway revival ten years ago was good, but enclosing this production into an indoor space, regardless of how large the stage space is, would be as stifling and restrictive as the Witch confining Rapunzel in her tower. If this production were to transfer to Broadway, and it seems that the earliest time frame would be the season after next (as there are a slew of new musicals and plays arriving on Broadway for the upcoming season, and that several cast members have conflicting projects in the upcoming months), I would still like to see the show again, but for me, it wouldn’t be the same as it was in the woods (well, park). I suppose we’ll have to wait to see how things unfold.