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THEATER REVIEW / 'INTO THE WOODS' : And Out the Door : Somebody took a wrong turn on the way to Granny's house with PCPA Theaterfest's staging.

April 01, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once upon a time, there was a performing arts conservatory that mounted a perfect staging of a brilliant musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

I wish.

Well, it would make a nice fairy tale, but the reality is that somebody sure took a wrong turn on the way to Granny's house with PCPA Theaterfest's staging of "Into the Woods."

In Lapine's ingenious story line, a number of characters from our best-known fairy tales (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel) find their stories overlapping in the mysterious woods, where they venture in pursuit of their respective wishes.

Along the way, their quests become metaphors for key turning points in life, embodied with the signature elegance and precision of Stephen Sondheim songs.

Yet somehow, as if by magic, all the complexity seems to have disappeared from the stage, as if it had been--gasp-- Disneyized.

Granted, the frisky title song does sound a bit like a Disney tune, but the intention is ironic --the whole piece is about learning the difference between wishes and choices as we grow from the fairy tales of childhood to the responsibilities of adult life.

Instead, we find some serious cases of arrested development here and, worse yet, misreadings at nearly every turn.

Take the lecherous wolf (Eric M. Cole), for example, who sings "Hello, Little Girl . . ." to tempt the scrumptious Red Riding Hood from her straight and narrow path.

Instead of the rough-hewn sleaze bag we'd expect, we find a perky, cuddly critter with ears almost like a bunny's. And what's he doing in that prim baby blue frock coat?

For that matter, the mysterious old hermit looks suspiciously like the Jolly Green Giant in need of pruning.

It would be easy to pin the blame on costume designer Marcia Rodriguez, but she has to share it with director Brad Carroll--too much of that same cuteness has spilled over into many of the performances.

The useless Princes (Cole again and Carlos A. Mendoza) prance and mug shamelessly--their "Agony" over their unattainable infatuations would be 10 times funnier if they played it for real.

One big exception is Karen Barbour's Witch, who hits all the right notes (musically and emotionally) in a show-stealing performance.

She manages to be greedy, funny, tender and spiteful at all the right times--sheer delight to watch.

And Kitty Balay fares well enough as the Baker's Wife.

But two actors can't carry an ensemble show.

Too many of the performers seem clueless about what's happening to their characters.

In the first act, Little Red Riding Hood (Wendy-Marie Martin) loses her innocence at the hands of a lecherous wolf, and Jack's (Jim Poulos') adventures up the beanstalk are his first experience of a world outside the sphere of his mother's domination.

Their solo songs are supposed to be about the changes they've undergone, but you'd have to listen carefully to the words to know it.

Other choices are simply astonishing-- casting a Baker's father (Jack Greenman) who looks younger than the Baker (Gregg Coffin) does little to help their pivotal confrontation scene.

I could go on, but you probably get the point by now.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Into the Woods." Performed through April 18 at the Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre in Santa Maria. Evening performances ($15 to $17) are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees ($12 to $14) are 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call (800) 549-7272 for reservations or information.

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