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THEATER REVIEW / 'INTO THE WOODS' : Cinderella Meets Jack and Beanstalk : The Conejo Players offer an extended fable and examine what might have happened in the 'happily ever after' part.


Classic fairy tales, most of them at least a little Grimm, form the basis of "Into the Woods," the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that landed on Broadway in 1987. The presence of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and a couple of handsome princes notwithstanding, this is definitely a show aimed at an audience well beyond the generally accepted fairy tale stage.

Directed by Michael Tachco, it's also the latest in the Conejo Players' recent string of top-notch productions.

Lapine's clever book intertwines the stories of Red and the Wolf, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and the Baker and his Wife into one extended fable as the Bakers search for ingredients to break a witch's spell and the couple's infertility.

After much running about, everything's resolved, and there's apparently something in the oven. But that's just the end of Act I. The second act of "Into the Woods" examines what might have happened in the " . . . happily ever after" part, and it isn't all pretty.

"Into the Woods" features a reasonably high gore quotient, most of it implied, and the sexual subtext of classic fairy tales isn't ignored. Director Tachco de-emphasizes much of what's going on beneath the surface, and there's nothing here that a youngster couldn't handle. Still, some parents might be a bit worried about exposing the little darlings to such stuff, so consider yourselves forewarned.

Sondheim lost interest in writing popular songs some years before "Into the Woods," and nobody's very likely to leave the theater humming any of the tunes here. But the music is perky, adds to the characters' character, and occasionally serves to move the action along while leaving most of the wit to Lapine's dialogue and story construction.

It takes a large cast to perform "Into the Woods," and a higher-than-usual degree of backstage technical ability; the Conejo troupe (a good mix of familiar faces and welcome newcomers) comes through with both. And they do it well enough to have handled an opening night lighting problem so capably that most of the audience probably wouldn't have noticed it had they not been told.

K. Jill Sorgen, Natalie Holcomb, Shelly Leigh-Styff and Kimberly DeMarco star as Cinderella, the Baker's Wife, Rapunzel, and the wicked Witch who lives next door to the Bakers, respectively; with Peter C. Sroka, Terry Delegeane, Mark Andrew Reyes and Ray Mastrovito as Jack, the Baker, and the two devilishly handsome but hopelessly dimwitted princes. The truth be told, though, few if any of the men in "Into the Woods" qualify as bright.

A couple of the actors play more than one character: Gene Bernath as the genial narrator and a "Mysterious Man" (as he's named in the program) who applies some spin to the story; Reyes appears as a Prince and the wicked Wolf; Fifi Davis as Red's granny, Cinderella's mother (Penny Puente is the stepmother) and a malicious Giant, and DeMarco as the Witch both while she's under the spell and after she's released from it.

Jack Allaway's set and the costumes "coordinated" by Crystal St. Romain are enchanting, and Scott Taylor's makeup of the Witch--in her early incarnation--is quite remarkable. There are also a number of special effects, which range from complex to shamelessly simple.

Kevin Calvin's choreography is fine, and there's a live orchestra, conducted by Dave Pier, who couldn't receive too much acclaim for the offstage work.

The Conejo Players next production will be "The Man Who Came to Dinner." Those who wish the company to concentrate on more contemporary, adventurous and imaginative fare are especially commended to get themselves to Thousand Oaks at their earliest opportunity.


"Into the Woods" continues through May 15 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. Performances are at 8:30 Thursday through Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoons at 2:30. The May 9 Sunday matinee performance will be signed for the hearing-impaired. Tickets are $8 on Thursdays and Sunday matinees, $10 on Fridays and Saturdays. For reservations or further information, call 495-3715.


FOIBLES UNDER ATTACK: Director Marianne Corney seeks three men and three women "with versatility, humor and ability" to play "up to 10 roles between the ages of 8 and 80" in the Conejo (Sunday) Afternoon Theater's upcoming production of A. R. Gurney's "The Dining Room." One theater reference book notes that the characters "mercilessly exploit the foibles" of each other, so be prepared for some (as they say in Variety) heavy thesping. Auditions will be held Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. The play will run Sunday afternoons, June 27-July 17. For further information, call director Corney at (818) 597-8322.

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