On Theater: SCR teens romp 'Into the Woods'

South Coast Repertory's Summer Players are sort of like baseball's all-star teams.

They represent the cream of SCR's crop of acting classes for young people, the Theatre Conservatory, and range in age from 9 to 20.

Thus, the best and the brightest are chosen for the Summer Players, and their talents currently are illuminated on SCR's Julianne Argyros Stage in a marvelous production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" — which would seem ideal for kids until you delve into the show's deeper meanings.

These kids delve like crazy, thanks to director Hisa Takakuwa's imaginative staging and inspired embellishments. She's added a second wolf, the three little pigs and the giant's golden harp and golden egg-laying hen to an already delicious mixture.

What emerges may not be "Into the Woods" at its finest — these are, after all, young performers in training — but few shows could be more enjoyable. Takakuwa's directorial savvy has unearthed some of the splendid subtleties in Sondheim's morality play in a fairy tale setting, and her actors deliver them with relish.

Given the spaciousness of the Argyros rather than the limited dimensions of the Nicholas Stage, where most youth shows are performed, SCR's "Into the Woods" does full justice to Sondheim's score and the equally intricate book by James Lapine.

Lines like, "It's your father's fault the curse got placed and the place got cursed in the first place" and, from the prince, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," never fail to amuse.

The ensemble is uniformly impressive, but a few individual performance stand out — Brianna Beach's vindictive witch (though her transition to glamour gal isn't that contrasting since she's not really uglified to begin with), Rachel Teague's baker's wife who gleefully discovers her sensual side, Akshay Sharma's befuddled baker and Julia Ostmann as the screeching harridan that is Jack's mother.

Also quite satisfying in their interpretations are Kailyn Dunkleman as the delicately lovely Cinderella, Catherine Hass as the bratty Little Red Riding Hood, Jordan Bellow as Cinderella's philandering prince and Luke Tagle as the "mysterious man" who insinuates himself into the proceedings.

Others filling the bill quite nicely are Connor Dugard as the wolf, Lindsey Wiercioch as Rapunzel, Claire Dwyer as Cinderella's ethereal mother and Nick Slimmer as Rapunzel's prince, who doubles as the second wolf. Tying the package together is Valentina Gehley as the narrator.

The efforts of Sara Ryung Clement, who designed both the magical setting and the imaginative costumes (the cow, Milky White, is a particular hoot, employing crutches to enhance character) are highly effective, and Erin McNally's music direction is first rate. The singers might be more effective if, in the first act especially, they resisted playing every lyric out front when not engaged in a solo.

"Into the Woods" — which winds up its brief engagement this weekend — ranks near the top of Stephen Sondheim's world-class litany of musical theater triumphs. South Coast Repertory's talented teens do particular justice to this tricky and demanding exercise.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Into the Woods"

Who: SCR Summer Players

Where: South Coast Repertory Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Cost: $12

Call: (714) 708-5555

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