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'Into the Woods' moves nicely into the meadow


Director Todd Pearthree has proved he can take a large show and reduce it to fit a small theater. Now he has proved he can take the same show and stage it in a space as big as all outdoors.

The show is "Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical about fairy tales and their consequences. As the title suggests, it is ideally suited to its alfresco setting in the Evergreen House meadow, where Theatre Hopkins traditionally presents its final show of the season.

Pearthree first produced "Into the Woods" in 1993 at the tiny Spotlighters Theatre as the debut production of his company, the Musical Theatre Machine. This revival successfully mixes about half of his original cast with equally skilled newcomers to the production. It makes clever use of an important, but uncredited, character -- Mother Nature.

For instance, the birds that talk to Cinderella are attached to a branch of the large tree at the back of the stage. Thanks to the simplest of stage effects (a string), the branch flutters when Cinderella's feathered friends advise her. When various characters set off on offstage journeys -- the Prince and his Steward seeking the owner of the lost slipper, for example -- they cavort through the wide-open spaces surrounding the stage.

Lapine's book blends several well-known fairy tales with one of his own invention -- about a childless baker and his wife. Yet the interlocking stories never become confusing, even for the youngsters in the audience.

The show isn't actually aimed at kids, however, since Lapine and Sondheim were influenced by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales." But, as staged by Pearthree, without an intermission, the show proceeds with such blithe artistry that it should appeal to audiences of all ages.

The cast members who distinguished themselves at the Spotlighters continue to do so, particularly Cynthia Rinaldi as tough Little Red Riding Hood, who starts out throwing tantrums and quickly turns into a bloodthirsty cynic; Edward J. Peters in the double roles of the Wolf and Cinderella's --ing prince (who proclaims, in one of the show's funniest lines: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere"); and Jimi Kinstle and Liz Boyer as the frustrated baker and his determined wife.

As the witch who sets the plot in motion, Nancy Asendorf is stronger this time around, flinging her cape with threatening defiance as she chastises the other characters for casting blame instead of banding together to solve their problems -- the moral of the show. Of the newcomers, Beth Weber is a noble Cinderella, and Richard W. Lloyd is amusing as Jack, the sweet but somewhat dimwitted giant killer. Credit should also go to Elizabeth Fink, the production's extremely able accompanist.

With only two outdoor performances left, this polished production is a must-see for Sondheim fans. It's also a must-see for another reason. After two years of struggle, Pearthree is disbanding his talented Musical Theatre Machine. Don't miss this last chance to see the company at its best -- before it's relegated to the ranks of "once upon a time."

"Into the Woods"

Where: Theatre Hopkins at Evergreen House meadow, 4545 N. Charles St.

When: 6:15 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. Grounds open at 4:30 p.m. Indoor performances 8 p.m. July 1 and 2:15 p.m. July 2 at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University

Tickets: $12 for adults; $5 for children under 12

Call: (410) 516-7159

*** 1/2

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