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THEATER : The Hag in the 'Woods'

November 22, 1990|JAN HERMAN | Jan Herman covers theater for the Times Orange County Edition.

A witch with a Bronx accent, as she was played by Bernadette Peters on Broadway and by Cleo Laine both in London and on tour, is one thing you won't encounter in the must-see production of "Into the Woods" at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Village Theater.

Myrona Delaney prefers to put her own stamp on the role. "I'm trying not to do it like all the other witches people remember," she says, listing not only Peters and Laine but Margaret Hamilton from "The Wizard of Oz" in her catalogue of memorable hags.

Delaney, a third-year UCI graduate student with a string of stellar local performances behind her, is made up to look like an old crone on stage, of course. She has a prosthetically created hook nose and a hump on her back. But she plays the central character of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical with insights owing more to Bruno Bettleheim, the interpreter of fairy tales, than to Broadway or the Bronx.

"The Witch is an embodiment of everybody's high grief and high anger," Delaney says. "She is a woman scorned, by her mother and by the world. She is more sensitive to her losses than anybody else, and she suffers. For that reason alone, it's a much more difficult role than I expected it to be.

"If you're just singing the music, that's easy. But every emotion in her songs is intensified in the acting. Consequently, it takes more out of me. And she's not a typical Sondheim character. He normally deals with confused people who ask a lot of questions, not with great anger and great despair. The Witch is way out there. She's totally bare."

For Delaney, an attractive, auburn-haired soprano who originally trained as a classical pianist, the past two years have been something of a Sondheim education. She starred as Phyllis in "Follies" at UCI in the fall of 1988, then played a dual role as Celeste and the ex-wife of George in "Sunday in the Park With George" at South Coast Repertory in the spring of 1989. And last summer she sparkled in "Side by Side by Sondheim" at Saddleback College's Cabaret Theatre.

Her student status notwithstanding, the 34-year-old Delaney is hardly a newcomer to musicals. She started out working in Chicago during that city's theater boom of the late '70s. After "a lot of dinner theater" and two original shows, she left for New York. There, in 1982, Delaney landed an Off-Broadway nudie musical, "Let My People Come," by Earl Wilson Jr., son of the famous Broadway columnist.

"I phoned my parents," Delaney recalls, "and told them, 'This isn't normally what I would do. But I'm in New York, and it's a good opportunity.' They said, 'Go ahead, but we probably won't come to see this one.' They didn't."

The opportunity didn't exactly pan out either. Not long afterward, Delaney took a job in the "Hoop-de-doo Revue," which was a featured attraction in Florida's Fort Wilderness theme park. "We did three shows a night four days a week," Delaney says. "It was a big deal for me because for a year I had a steady income."

When that ended, the actress came to Los Angeles and auditioned for the Viking Line cruise ships. And for 18 months she toured the world, entertaining shipboard passengers bound from Hong Kong and Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon. Broadway, it wasn't.

"There's a point in your career where you know you're not going to go any further unless you take stock and let your talent grow in another direction," Delaney says, explaining why she came to UCI for graduate training. "In this business you can become closed and hardened. You can lose the sensitivity and the passion that got you into the business in the first place. School can bring all of that back."

And it has, she maintains: "I've had really good instructors--Clayton Garrison, Dennis Castellano and Mahlon Schazenbach--who forced me to take the lid off. They've opened my eyes to my own potential."

Ironically, Delaney does not plan to head for New York when she receives her master of fine arts in musical theater next spring, although doing a Broadway show "is really what I want to do," she says.

Instead, she plans to get into television. "Doesn't that sound horrible?" Delaney asks. "I want to sing in musicals for the rest of my life, only there aren't a lot of places to do that. But if you get a TV series, then everything is possible."

Just ask Tyne Daly.

What: UC Irvine's production of "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

When: Friday, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 24, at 2 and 8 p.m.

Where: UCI's Fine Arts Village Theatre.

Whereabouts: Bridge Street entrance to the UCI campus, off Campus Drive in Irvine.

Wherewithal: $14.

Where to Call: (714) 856-5000.

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