The University of NSW Theatrical Society, otherwise known as, NUTS, has mounted an impressive accolade of major productions over the last couple years, such as the musicals, Guys and Dolls, The Producers and AIDA. These major productions, held once per year, are entirely run by students – from the cast, orchestra, to the production and crew teams – whom ensure that the design, technicalities and behind-the-scenes components are top quality, and run as smoothly as possible.

But in 2015, NUTS wanted to shake some things up. After tireless rehearsal hours and an extremely dedicated cast, crew and orchestra, NUTS has taken on the challenge of putting on one of Sondheim’s most difficult musicals: Into the Woods.

Into the Woods has garnered a certain amount of popularity, particularly following the release of the 2014 Disney film, directed by Rob Marshall. But what remains at the core of this musical, is what student director Matt McEwan wanted to flesh out for his take of this great musical. Drawing inspiration from the original Grimm tales on which the musical is based, McEwan stressed that his production “give[s] a whole new meaning to ‘the truth hurts.’”

“I wholeheartedly believe that the Broadway original under [James] Lapine was the best [version of the show]. Into the Woods is, in essence, a dark retelling of the traditional tales. The show asks, ‘what happens after Happily Ever After?’ The answer is that you discover that you never achieved it, and [instead] discover all the negative consequences of the actions you take in your rush to get there. Lapine wrote Into the Woods after the tradition of the original Grimm tales, eschewing the romantic trappings of ‘niceness is good’. His decidedly modernised take on the tales focuses cleanly on the real life consequences of the actions of the characters.”

The cast of Into the Woods.

The cast of Into the Woods.

In his fourth year studying a double degree of Computer Engineering and Science, McEwen has previously been involved with directing, vocal directing and writing skits for the UNSW Computer Science Engineering Revue (CSE). Into the Woods marks his first directorial effort within NUTS. When Theatre People asked him the difference between these university experiences, McEwan emphasised that while student Revues focus on teaching and growth, NUTS strives to realise the top quality experience and the end product for those in the show, and their audience.

“There is nothing I personally enjoy more in theatre than the experience of having put on an amazing show that I’m genuinely proud of, and have really worked for. To do that, you have got to have two things: a genuinely challenging show, and a quality, skilled cast and production team, capable of puling it off. NUTS always pushes that boundary, and puts on student theatre of a really high standard. We have amazingly talented people – of the calibre that we can put on something like Into the Woods. Working with such people […] has been an absolute pleasure.”

Working vigorously alongside McEwan is musical director, Harry Collins, who has had his substantial input within the NUTS community, through roles such as both music director and performer. Collins spoke about the differences working on a smaller and a larger-scale musical, such as Into the Woods.

“Working on small shows and large shows definitely require different focuses, but what you lose in complexity of scale in terms of working with a large group of people, you gain in the accuracy and precision required of smaller shows. The first show I did at UNSW was Songs for a New World, which has a five-piece band and four acting parts. The challenge there was to appeal to the sense of intimacy in Jason Robert Brown’s score without losing the large arcs it creates across the score. In something like Into The Woods, the challenge is to create a sense of reality and depth to the score. They’re different challenges!”

Theatre People also caught up with two principal cast members for this production, Hamish Stening (The Baker) and Kathy Xenos (The Baker’s Wife). While both performers are no strangers to the stage, Into the Woods marks Stening’s NUTS debut.

In conversation with Stening, he emphasised his attempt to bring a different interpretation of The Baker to the stage – one that challenges the dubious nature of morals: “The Baker, for me, is very, very conservative. He isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he makes his decisions based on what is right – he does what he ought to do. I think that this is admirable. He wants a child but you question whether he actually wants to care for a baby or whether having a child is simply ‘the thing to do’. His wife wants a baby, married couples have children, he has to continue his family line/patriarchal lineage… He is perhaps the only character who puts his own wishes behind others and his responsibilities – at least initially. It is therefore no surprise that he becomes very distressed when he has to do morally questionable things (for example, lie and steal) to have the child. The musical makes the audience realise that morals are difficult.”

Kathy Xenos’ stage credits span from the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to Florinda in Chatswood Musical Society’s production of Into the Woods. Having performed a smaller role in the show before, Xenos spoke about her role as The Baker’s Wife, and the underlying complexities of the musical.

“The Baker’s Wife is one of my all time favourite roles in any show, and is one that I have been looking to do for a long time. I had fun selecting which of her traits to really emphasise and play up in order to have her come across as determined and driven, yet also with a warmth that makes her endearing and loved by the audience. While she can be played as quite harsh and cold, it is important to me that – despite her morally grey approach to making decisions – the audience finds her likeable and […] empathises with her motivation and reasoning most of all.”

NUTS Presents: Into the Woods is showing at Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre from the 8th – 12th September 2015. Tickets can be booked at this link