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Tracy Katz Gobbles Up Role, Leaves the Wolf Empty-Handed

If past performances are any indication, Little Red Riding Hood will run two risks when she skips onto the stage tonight in “Into the Woods” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

One is getting eaten by the Wolf. The other is getting arrested for grand theft.

But Tracy Katz, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, pleads innocent to stealing scenes in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical about such fairy tale characters as a wicked witch and Rapunzel, Cinderella, two Prince Charmings, Jack and his mother and their cow, and a baker and his wife.

“The less I do, the more the audience likes it,” Katz protested in a recent interview between shows from Los Angeles, where the national touring company closed an 8-week run Sunday. “I find the more I hold back, the drier Little Red Riding Hood gets. And the drier she gets, the more they eat it up.”

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A likely story.

Katz doesn’t just hang the show’s most comical and endearing role out to dry. She wrings it out with a droll “little girl” voice that sounds--for want of a better description--like Andrea McArdle’s Annie on helium. And that , Katz admitted, is premeditated.

“I knew I couldn’t use the rich tones I was trained for by my opera teacher,” she said of her deliciously funny delivery. “My own voice is more mature. I’m a belt singer and a high soprano. So basically I just threw my technique out the window.”

Another likely story.

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Sometimes Little Red Riding Hood’s nasal whine comes gift-wrapped in a puzzled gaze worthy of the Little Rascals’ Alfalfa. Any actress who can play less than age 12 convincingly when she is a 24-year-old college graduate must have secret reserves of technique hidden in her pockets.

Besides, anyone capable of showing up in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers for a coveted callback with Sondheim--as Katz did in September during auditions for the road company--must have very deep pockets.

(Her sartorial style didn’t go unnoticed. She recalled that Lapine, who directed the road company, introduced her to Sondheim by saying: “Stephen, this is Tracy. She is wearing the exact same outfit she wore the last time.”

(“I turned beet-red,” Katz remembered. “There are people in the industry who wear the same outfit to every callback just so they’ll create an impression.”)

The Tony Award-winning team--Sondheim for the score, Lapine for the libretto--was apparently pleased with her character work right from the start. “They were very enthusiastic,” she said. “They gave me my freedom to develop the role as I wanted to do it.”

Nor did it hurt her confidence to learn “through the grapevine” that she was their first and only choice.

Meantime, Sondheim and Lapine decided to add a prop to Katz’s Little Red Riding Hood that the character doesn’t have on Broadway. It may be the simplest “special effect” in the show, but it is also one of the most telling: a pair of red-framed spectacles.

“We were sitting in this half-circle reading through the script on the first day of rehearsal,” she recalled. “I had my reading glasses on. Stephen and James were, like, snickering. They said, ‘We think you look really cute in those. We’re going to give you big red glasses for the show.’ That’s how that happened.”

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But Sondheim and Lapine had nothing to do with another prop that Katz has acquired offstage: a Little Red Riding Car. Ever since she showed up with it at a gala opening-night cast party in Hollywood, it has become one of the touring company’s inside jokes.

“I swear I did not ask for the car,” Katz maintained. “They just gave it to me at this rent-a-car place.”

Another likely story.

Ever since she got out of college, things seem to have fallen into her lap. Shortly after receiving her musical-theater degree at Syracuse University in 1986, for instance, Katz “tried to become a starving actress in New York” but couldn’t. On her first audition she landed a job.

“I didn’t even have time to settle in and starve,” said Katz, who grew up in New Jersey.

Off she went to the Goodspeed Opera House, a professional regional theater in East Haddam, Conn., noted for originating such Broadway musicals as “Man of La Mancha,” “Shenandoah” and “Annie.”

Next came a role in the musical adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” back in New York. (The most expensive show in Off-Broadway history at $7.5 million, it also became the biggest flop. “We previewed for months,” she recalled.)

And now?

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“I want to see the country,” Katz said. “We’re supposed to be on tour, so let’s tour!”

“Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine opens today and runs through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Curtain today through Sunday at 8 p.m. with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2. Tickets: $19 to $40. Information: (714) 556-2787.


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