Rehearsals have been anything but ordinary for UC Irvine students preparing for their production of Stephen Sondheim's tour-de-force musical "Into the Woods." Along with their usual blocking and memorization duties, the students studied with and performed for their heroes over the last few weeks.
Joanna Gleason, who won a Tony Award for her origination of the sardonic, world-weary Baker's Wife in the fairy tale's original Broadway production of 1987, stopped by the Claire Trevor School of the Arts to give a master class and watch the students perform a song from the show. Gleason was effusive in her praise as the students finished.
"It was really overwhelming to meet her in person. I'm not gonna lie. She is the Baker's Wife, and I know that this role was created for her, so to go up there and sing her song … I hope she was pleased with what I did," said Kagiso Alicia Paynter, who follows in Gleason's footsteps to play the Baker's Wife in the UCI production.
Paynter added that Gleason encouraged the students to be themselves during her master class.
"She said to be happy with who you are, and the rest will work," Paynter said.
The advice comes from Gleason's own life. Both she and her husband, fellow actor Chris Sarandon (best known for his portrayal of Prince Humperdinck in "The Princess Bride"), are still heavily involved in television, film and theater, and live in Connecticut.
The Broadway star was visiting Southern California for a family celebration, and was invited to visit the students by a colleague in the theater industry, UCI professor and "Into the Woods" director Don Hill.
"I thought she would be a really excellent, perfect person to come here. She's a gifted, gifted teacher," Hill said; Gleason has taught in schools around the country for 25 years.
Gleason is not the only luminary to meet with the students. Actress and producer Pamela Kashani, who originated the role of Rapunzel in the original production, also visited the students Wednesday; she had met with them previously as well.
Gleason, who spent her afternoon at UCI with her mother, said she especially was impressed by the team atmosphere she witnessed backstage.
"They're smart," Gleason said of the cast members. "They're not cynical. They're not slick. They're not jaded. They are really in service to something. They just have it out for each other … Coming back here reminds me of when I went to school at Occidental."
Despite the musical's reputed technical difficulty, Gleason said she thought "Into the Woods" was a the perfect choice for a group of college students to tackle; the childlike wonder of Act 1 is followed by a second act about loss, responsibility and consequences. Children's productions of "Into the Woods" usually stage Act 1, but never Act 2.
This year marks Sondheim's 80th birthday, which was celebrated with several gala events around the world. Sondheim composed and wrote the lyrics for "Into the Woods," and James Lapine wrote the libretto, or narrative structure that tells the story.
"[Sondheim's] birthday was so thrilling for all of us," Gleason said; she performed at two of the events herself, and sang two of her major songs from the show — "It Takes Two," with original cast member Chip Zien, and "Moments in the Woods."
The Baker's pragmatic Wife in the show, who believes in "rights and wrongs and in-betweens" and who never wishes because she doesn't want to be let down, seeks to balance caprice with duty when the wish she has denied comes true.
"Must it all be either less is more — either plain or grand?" she sings in "Moments in the Woods." "Is it always 'or?' Is it never 'and?'"
Gleason said that in developing the Baker's Wife's character, she had to give Lapine deference because of his "infallible ear," but still had a bit of leeway to leave her own mark on a character known for her moral ambiguity.
"One of my favorite things she told us is that actors aren't really good liars — they're really good truth tellers," said Courtney Stokes, who plays the Witch in the UCI production. "She also encouraged us to get out in the real world, because you have to do what you're going to do [onstage]."
This is Stokes' fourth time performing in "Into the Woods" — as a youth, she was Red Ridinghood three times, but now is playing one of the lynchpins of the production — a witch who proves that "witches can be right."
"It's a huge responsibility, but it's nice to do something different," Stokes said of the role.
Stokes said it was surreal to look over at Gleason while performing her solo in the finale, when she gave the audience the final moral of the story: that children will listen, watch and learn from everything their elders do.
"It almost made me realize the message of the show more," Stokes said.
If You Go
Who: UC Irvine students
What: "Into the Woods"
When: Nov. 12 to 20
Where: Claire Trevor Theater, UCI
Cost: $28 general; $25 seniors and groups; $12 UCI students and children
Information and tickets: (949) 824-2787, http://www.arts.uci.edu/events or ticketmaster.com