In what was probably my favorite part of Chance Theater's groovin' rendition of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, some creepy giant monster retarded people stood at the edge of the audience, creepily. Then they invaded the audience, perching on people's chairs and staring staring staring. It took me about 15 minutes to decide they were probably birds—birds in the woods—and it's probably a classic drama class exercise, like the kind gently mocked in A Chorus Line. Be a table! Be a sports car! An ice cream cone! “Be a bird! Freak out the people! Come on! Freakier!” Some of the birds were more excellent birds than others. Krystal Cori Garcia, who also was in sumptuous voice as Cinderella's asshole sister Florinda, was a fine, sullen, very Wednesday Addams bird. But Peter Schnake, underused in a couple of parts, had a whole Lenny eye rape and accidental murder thing going on that, unsurprisingly, was very much a turn-on.

Tell me about the rabbits, George.

So my favorite part came before the play actually started. But the next two hours and 45 minutes (!) had many pleasures of their own. Rainsticks! Awesome! A cow that had no milk because it was fashioned modernistically from wire and sheeting! A song about lettuce! A young man playing Jack (as in “and the Beanstalk”) who could have doubled for that hobbit kid and whose main form of acting seemed to be to open up his baby blues as far as they could possibly go short of propping them up with toothpicks! (Those are some big fuckin' eyes!) The heartwarming story of his love affair with the cow!

Directed by Oanh Nguyen, the minimalist rendition really was a treat, full of actors in fine voice and with excellent wicked timing. (The Baker's Wife, played by Lowe Taylor, is especially funny, evoking a less-hapless Lucille Ball; she works out with the Groundlings in LA.) Into the Woods is a witty mlange of our most enduring fairy tales—the proper Grimm versions, thank you, with blood in the stepsisters' shoes and Rapunzel's prince tearing his eyes out on a thicket of thorns and Little Red Riding Hood being torn from the belly of the wolf. With Cinderella's prince and Rapunzel's prince (brothers, natch) dueting on “Agony” (“Mine's more painful than yours!”); the wicked witch singing a heartbreaking song to her daughter Rapunzel, begging her, “Stay at home, stay at home, stay at home with me”; and the slender wolf doing a wicked (and very Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) “Hello, Little Girl,” Act I is a funny, happy and very knowing ball of the best kind of musical theater fluff. After an hour and a half comes our happy ending.

Except, oh! No one leaves! And as soon as the savvy observer notes that no one has left, and we've already had our happy ending, the savvy observer can deduce that Act II will be a slasher flick. And that's where Nguyen, in his quest to focus on the “character relationships,” makes his only missteps. If they didn't come right at the end, I would have forgotten about them completely, awash in the pleasure of the show. But they did.

Fathers and sons leaving one another leads to some schlocky moralizing; the same with lyrics like “Mother isn't here now,” which are lovely and sad but schlocky and moralizing. Also, did you know that killing is bad, and Lebanon and Israel shouldn't focus on blame? It's too, too true. I didn't actually cringe, though, until the Metaphorical Sweater made its Literal Appearance. The better to warm you with, my dear.

INTO THE WOODS, THE CHANCE THEATER, 5552 E. LA PALMA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 777-3033. THURS.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 10. $22-$25.

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