As a professional actress, Janie Wallace played The Baker’s Wife in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
Fast forward several years and Wallace — a veteran of national tours of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Gypsy” — is living in New York City and co-directing and choreographing the fairy-tale musical at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry.
Working alongside Masters’ maestro director M.A. Haskin, Wallace has stretched the Sondheim story, wordlessly, by adding a dozen fairytale characters who appear during set changes.
“In high school, your biggest challenge is always the ensemble,” Wallace says. “We have so many kids who want to be part of it. Picking a show like this, we knew there isn’t a big written-in ensemble. Last year, we did ‘Pippin,’ which had a huge ensemble. This year, we wanted to give the kids the experience of working on a show of this caliber, that’s this well-written and this important in our canon.”
Inspired by the Shakespeare in the Park production which added Hansel and Gretl and the Three Little Pigs, Wallace “researched the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen. Some of them are a little obscure, the miller’s daughter, but some people will recognize Thumbelina.”
The characters speak no lines. They change the sets, create the woods and cross the stage, interacting with each other.
In the show’s opening number, a 13-minute table-setting title tune, these characters will begin their storytelling alongside the named characters.
Acting without words is a huge challenge, but one the students seemed to be taking to at a recent rehearsal.
“We have Hansel and Gretl encountering the witch, who sort of beckons them on,” Wallace says with a laugh. “The Big Bad Wolf chases the little pigs off stage.”
The students read the original works their “new” characters are based on, and improvised their parts.
“It’s really neat,” Wallace says. “They’ve really created them, so there’s a lot of ownership. They all have an objective and a story that will propel them forward. They’re all going into the woods for something and they all help to set that scene for us, literally.”
Having the scene changes advance the story is in keeping with Wallace’s idea that “blackouts are a waste of space.”
“We live in a world where audiences like to see how it’s all put together,” she says. “They’d rather watch that stuff happen.”
Of the 35-member cast, there are a dozen or so “extra” characters. You can see them all at 7 p.m., Feb. 28 and March 1. Tickets are free. For details, call 914-479-6432.
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at the Masters School. Enjoy.