You may have seen some dramatically whimsical posters around campus recently promoting Second Stage’s current production of “Into the Woods,” which will take place this weekend in the ’92 Theater. They’re pretty good indicators of both the musical and its current incarnation at Wesleyan.
The show began to come together last spring, when Maia Nelles-Sager ’17 talked to Johnny LaZebnik ’16 after hearing that he had wanted to direct “Into the Woods.” Though LaZebnik was abroad and the two had never met, plans were put in motion for a spring 2015 show—the earliest semester that would be allowed by Second Stage, since a production of the musical went up four years ago.
“It’s really always been ‘Into the Woods’ for me,” LaZebnik said. “I grew up with it, and fairytales have always intrigued me to begin with.”
LaZebnik directed “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in the WestCo Café last spring, the first time Nelles-Sager saw his work and was drawn to the sense of fun in “Charlie Brown.”
Nelles-Sager, on the other hand, has been active in the theatre community in numerous roles. This semester, she helped out with “Auntie Stein’s SMiLETIME Pizza Burger Palace” and a senior thesis called “Ida.” She also worked on technical aspects of “Starfall,” “The Vagina Monologues,” and “Almost, Maine.”
The two initially decided that Nelles-Sager would be the assistant director, but after making some progress in planning, they made the decision to co-direct.
“I have a lot of big ideas and Johnny has a really strong understanding of what you can practically ask actors to do,” Nelles-Sager said. “On the other hand, he has a lot of huge tech ideas, and my own experience as a techie has made me more practical in that area. So together we’ve made a very balanced team.”
The musical itself was critical to bringing them together and has helped them resolve clashes of vision and practicality.
“Our mutual love for the show has really kept our co-direction strong,” LaZebnik said.
Although, like most college performances, “Into the Woods” works on a relatively low budget, Nelles-Sager emphasized that the show won’t reflect this lack of funds. For comparison, the current off-Broadway production has 10 actors and a piano; Second Stage’s version, meanwhile, boasts 17 actors and a 12-piece orchestra.
Ali Goldberg ’15, who plays Lucinda (one of Cinderella’s stepsisters), was initially drawn to the show because of its production team. She also auditioned because she had played the other sister, Florinda, in a production put on by her high school.
“I had a great time during rehearsals, especially playing around with [other cast members],” Goldberg said of her high school production. “We all laughed a lot, and rehearsals always made my Sunday afternoons much happier.”
However, not all the cast members were familiar with the show before auditioning. For Ella Caplin ’18, “Into the Woods” represents many firsts: Not only is it her first encounter with the show, but it is also the first performance she has done at Wesleyan.
“It’s a really good growing experience for me as an actor,” Caplin said.
Most school productions of the show cut out the second act, since it makes the show significantly longer and is a lot more somber than the first half, but LaZebnik and Nelles-Sager decided to include it in their production.
“We wanted to do the full [show] because that’s how it was written and that’s the show we love,” Nelles-Sager said.
For LaZebnik, as well, it’s the second half’s drastic tone shift that completes the musical.
“I personally love the sadness and depth of the second act, and I hope we do the show justice,” he said.
Matt Catron ’16, who plays the cow Milky White, got involved through LaZebnik, a close friend of his. He said LaZebnik knew he would be perfect for the role because he likes to humiliate himself publicly. As a minor character, the most challenging aspect for Catron was figuring out when to attract attention onstage and when to blend into the background.
“I’m onstage a fair amount but not always with something ‘to do,’” he said. “It can be tricky as a minor character, knowing how to add to the play’s richness and not distract from it.”
After the holiday release of the movie version of “Into the Woods,” Sondheim’s classic is certainly experiencing a revival. The Second Stage version promises to be full of the same vivid characters and thrills, perhaps with more of a Wesleyan touch. For one, Nelles-Sager and LaZebnik decided to fill the role of Jack (the beanstalk-climbing one) with a female actor, Erica Arensman ’17.
“As a girl playing a traditionally male role, there have definitely been some challenges,” Arensman said. “Jack’s vocal part was written for a tenor, and it goes much lower than I’ve ever had to sing. I’ve had to push myself, but it’s been so much fun to play a character that pulls me out of my comfort zone.”
“Into the Woods” continues in the ’92 Theater at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are limited and available from the box office starting at 10 a.m. the day of the performance.