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'Into the Woods' has a bewitching popularity — and presents issues

'Into the Woods,' coming to big screen with Meryl Streep, continues to impress with abundance of productions

The new movie version of "Into the Woods" is big in many ways — big stars (Meryl Streep, Chris Pine), big visual effects (giant beanstalk, angry giantess) and big score (booming orchestra that lays on the grandiosity).

The $50 million that Disney reportedly spent on the movie isn't huge by Hollywood standards, but it easily dwarfs the resources that most theater companies have at their disposal when mounting the popular Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical. Since it premiered in 1986 at the Old Globe in San Diego before a Broadway run, "Into the Woods" has impressed with its longevity — and continuing royalty stream — driven largely by community theaters and high school drama clubs, organizations whose minuscule budgets probably wouldn't cover Streep's hair and makeup allowances.

This Southern California theater season has featured an abundance of "Into the Woods" productions, with 12 stagings of various scope and size.

Among the bounty are two major revivals: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's staging running at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through Dec. 21 and the Fiasco Theater's production that came to the Old Globe last summer.

"The musical hasn't really aged at all," said Amanda Dehnert, who directs the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production. "It's the thematic issues — how do you live in a world that is darker than you thought it was? I don't think these issues really date, ever."

Set in an imaginary world, "Into the Woods" brings together fairy-tale characters including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack from the "Beanstalk" story and Rapunzel. The first half follows conventional story lines that coalesce into an uplifting, family-friendly climax.

After the intermission, the musical takes unexpected and sometimes sinister turns, including the deaths of major characters. That complexity has made it something of a problem in terms of defining the target audience: Is the show for kids or for adults?

"It's definitely not a kids show," said Dylan F. Thomas, artistic director of Center Stage Opera, which will present "Into the Woods" in February in Canoga Park. "It plays with our idea of fairy tales — you better watch what you ask for, and you never get what you want. We're always wanting something that's bigger and better, and this show highlights that."

When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented its staging last summer, a lot of families' strategy was to take children home after intermission, said Bill Rauch, the company's artistic director. "It's an individual decision as to whether it's too intense for children or not," he said.

Most stage companies allow children who are in elementary school to attend.

"If you're a child, it will innocently go over your head if it's done the right way. So it is appropriate for anyone who can sit through a three-hour show," said Julia Swanwick, founder and president of the Burbank Community Theater. The company, presenting "Into the Woods" starting Dec. 19, said the timing of its production with the Disney movie isn't purely coincidental.

"It's a show our members had asked to do. But knowing that Disney was going to put money into marketing, it would be silly of us not to tap into that," Swanwick said.

The Wallis said that its production of "Into the Woods" was "a very happy accident for us," said Patricia Wolff, interim artistic director of the Wallis, in a statement.

Most stagings of "Into the Woods" run close to three hours with one intermission. (The movie's running time is about two hours.) The version produced by high schools is an authorized abridgment that essentially consists of the musical's first half.

Companies can choose from among a few optional songs and characters, but beyond that, they are contractually prohibited from changing plot elements of "Into the Woods" without obtaining approval from Music Theatre International, the New York organization that controls the performance rights.

In June, Sondheim revealed that the Disney movie alters the story line, including the fate of a main character. He disclosed the changes at a teaching conference in New York, and his comments were later reported by the New Yorker magazine. The songwriter later issued a statement saying that working with Disney was "genuinely collaborative and always productive."

The movie employs digital effects to create many scenes, including those involving the magic beanstalk.

On stage, the witch's transformation is often a physically complex process that the technical and artistic crews would prefer to keep a secret.

"I can't tell you how the transformation takes place, but I can say it takes 40 minutes to glue prosthetics on before every show," said Miriam Laube, who plays the witch in the production at the Wallis.

Another artistic challenge on stage is the portrayal of the musical's animal characters, particularly the Big Bad Wolf and Milky White, the cow. At the Wallis, the wolf is played by actor Howie Seago as a hirsute escapee of "Duck Dynasty."

A popular Tumblr titled Low Budget Milky Whites shows various interpretations of that four-legged character by community theater and school productions. The Wallis cow is performed by actress Catherine E. Coulson, who wears a white bodysuit and holds a prop bovine head.

"It's a little bit strange having a grown woman playing Milky White," said Coulson, who has a few other roles in the production. "But it's my favorite part."

The many scene changes force companies with limited resources to find creative solutions, said Catherine Rahm, musical director of the Kentwood Players, an L.A. community theater whose production of "Into the Woods" runs through Dec. 20.

The company has created a set that suggests a giant storybook to echo the fairy-tale aspects of the plot. It recently added performances because of high demand for tickets.

"First and foremost, it's Sondheim fans," Rahm said. "This is one of his most accessible pieces."

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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