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THEATER REVIEW: “Into The Woods” at The Old Globe

Those poor old fairy tales have been re-imagined so many times it’s a wonder we still recognize them. Now The Old Globe, where the Tony-winning Stephen Sondheim favorite “Into The Woods” originated in 1986, brings us a “re-imagined” version from New York’s Fiasco Theater.

This version replaces the orchestra with an old piano (played by Matt Castle) on center stage, augmented from time to time by cast members playing cello, guitar, banjo, bassoon, trumpet and French horn.

Derek McLane’s set doesn’t look fanciful, just different, with piano lids decorating stage left and right, a crosshatch of what appear to be piano strings at stage rear and nine mismatched chandeliers overhead – no woods, castles or houses in sight.

But the mashup of fairy tale characters hasn’t changed – the Baker (Ben Steinfeld) and his Wife (Jessie Austrian), Jack of beanstalk fame (Patrick Mulryan), his mother (Liz Hayes) and Milky White the cow (Andy Grotelueschen), Cinderella (Claire Karpen), Rapunzel and Little Red Ridinghood (both played by Emily Young), the Wolf (Noah Brody) the two Princes (Brody and Grotelueschen), the Mysterious Man (Paul L. Coffey) and of course Rapunzel’s mom the Witch (Alison Cimmet) are all tossed into a musical blender and poured out onto the stage, where they keep running into each other in the (invisible) woods.

Pluses in this production are Grotelueschen’s Milky White in T-shirt, knee pants and spats (no cow suit) and a large cow bell hanging around his neck; the simplicity of Rapunzel’s tower (a rolling ladder); pianist Castle and the several actor/ musicians who pop up now and again to play a phrase or two, and the Wolf-Grandma encounter done in silhouette. (Speaking of the Wolf, his “Hello, Little Girl” is a nervous-making highlight.)

Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist, to my mind a less successful composer, and it’s most evident in this show, where I always come away feeling like I haven’t seen a musical as much as been subjected to an evening of patter. But the lyrics are fun.

Whitney Locher’s costumes look like they came out of a “hey-kids-let’s-do-a-play” trunk – which seems fitting. Tim Cryan’s lighting and Darron L. West’s sound design add to the atmosphere.

The first act is the more successful, where we meet the characters and find that they are a lot more clever and amusing than we’d thought.

Reality sets in in the second act, when the witch gets pushy and demanding, a giantess threatens to squash anyone in her path and Cinderella finds out being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This is a fine cast, every one versatile, committed and fun to watch.

Fairy tales are useful, up to a point. Sondheim passes that point well before the end of the 2-1/2-hour show, but don’t blame these fine actors for that.

The details

“Into The Woods” plays through Aug. 17 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.