The PCPA cast of ‘Into the Woods’ reacts to a large story obstacle during the second act.
The PCPA cast of ‘Into the Woods’ reacts to a giant story obstacle during the second act.  (Michelle Evans photo)

Nearly 50 years after Solvang’s Festival Theater – one of the Central Coast’s iconic outdoor performance spaces – was built in 58 days with donated materials and labor. It reopened last week with new architectural integrity and fresh technological outfitting after a 10-month, $5 million remodel project.

PCPA’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s renowned collaboration, the musical “Into the Woods” was fare to match the moment.

On opening night, audience members savored pre-performance treats (and some enjoyed complimentary tickets) courtesy of the Chumash Casino Resort-sponsored Community Night, the spirit of rejoicing to be out with a crowd on a summer’s night, and a gleaming full moon that rose over the second act.

A witty blend of Brothers Grimm and other fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella” and more, the musical weaves common themes of “be careful what you wish for,” entering the unknown, weathering the random vagaries of living, and, you know, people are just complicated.

What begins with concurrent yearnings across parallel plots becomes an integrated tale of divergent and shared destinies, triumphs and trials, and often painful lessons learned.

Humor is what makes the play truly enjoyable; morals of the story remind us that jokes are often funny because they sting.

Comic timing, vibrant characterizations and playful props, set, lighting and sound design distinguish the wit of this particular production. Who knew that getting squashed by a giant, narcissistic princes bonding over their shallow suffering, and fathers who abandon their children would make us laugh? Apparently, PCPA artists did.

The Witch offers visionary advice to The Baker and his Wife in a scene from ‘Into the Woods.’

The Witch offers visionary advice to The Baker and his Wife in a scene from ‘Into the Woods.’ (Jay Raftery photo)

Sondheim’s lyrics and Lapine’s story offer laughs (and a few sniffles) built on exaggerated, often self-inflicted suffering (aka “human folly”), the ironic outcomes of how we try to deal with loss, and our belief that we control our own destinies.

Songs that include “Agony” and its reprise, an unexpected hiphop witch rap, rapid-fire verses sung simultaneously by characters in the various tales, and complex plays on words throughout the libretto offer delights from blunt to nuanced.

While “Into the Woods” is called one of Sondheim’s most accessible works, some of the later songs feel cumbersome and preachy following a mostly lighthearted and straightforward first act.

The first act offered a clear narrative arc, escorting us through the protagonists’ travails to a series of “happy endings” and wish fulfillment. The second felt repetitive and a little slow in places. Most of that is built into the script and music; some may have been a function of an ensemble discovering ways and places to tighten a production once it’s been shared with an audience.

Overall, the magic of outdoor summer theater; plenty of standout songs, entertaining moments, performances by both student and equity actors; and a trip to see PCPA’s refreshed digs in Solvang make “Into the Woods” a worthy evening out.

The play runs long; opening night ended at 11 p.m., though introductory remarks celebrating the theater’s return to action may have added 15 or 20 minutes to the running time.

The seats are built to endure weather year-round, not to feel like your favorite recliner. Highly recommend renting or bringing blankies to cushion your tush for comfort and warmth. Even though the valley may be scorchy all day, it cools down fast at night.

“Into the Woods” runs through Sept. 4. Buy tickets here, or call 805.992.8313.

Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act.