The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

Behind the curtain: Urban’s Winter Production, “Alice By Heart”

Illustration credit: Isaiah Moliga-Puletasi.


As the lights rise, a somber ‘‘West of Words’’ starts on the piano as a dazzling Alice (Minna Lezak ‘24) takes to singing. This signals the start of Urban’s 2023-2024 Winter Production, “Alice By Heart.” The show is set to debut on February 20, and will run everyday until February 24.

“Alice By Heart” is a musical produced by Duncan Sheik and co-written by Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson. The show is a musical adaptation of the classic novel “Alice in Wonderland.” Duncan Sheik produced the music, and Steven Sater wrote the lyrics. The musical follows two young people, Alfred (Paris Cardenas ‘24) and Alice as they simultaneously switch in and out of two worlds: a London tube station and Wonderland. The musical grapples with the challenges that Alice and Alfred face as they navigate their lives underground during the Blitz, Germany’s bombing in England during World War Two. 

Head of the Theater Department Maya Herbsman ‘13 and Choral Director Kelly Nash are leading the production. Alongside this duo is the Theater Tech Director Claudio Silva, Musical Accompanist Roz Hague-Foster and Costume Designer Nicole Apostol Bruno. The cast is composed of 17 students from 10th to 12th grade, making it one of the largest Winter Production casts in recent years. 

“Alice by Heart” sets new creative heights for the theater program across all levels. The production features ambitious choreography and innovative set design, which includes a six-foot platform for performers to interact with. Above all else, what makes “Alice By Heart” creatively ambitious is the story it tells. The production steers away from the lightheartedness of last year’s jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia.” “Alice By Heart” delves into more mature themes of love, loss, grief and growing up, illustrated through a colorful and psychedelic adventure down the hole.

“‘Mamma Mia’ was a big Broadway musical trying to fit into our sweet little theater [and] it’s like two and a half hours of music,” said Herbsman. “‘Alice By Heart’ is more creatively ambitious [because] we’re not doing very traditional movements. The story we’re telling is ambitious [because it’s] a little funky.”

This funkiness that Herbsman refers to is not new to Gumption Theater, as “Alice By Heart” seeks to pay homage to the heart of Urban’s theater department. “I think that the history of Urban theater lives in the weird, the avant garde, the abstract,” Herbsman said.

“I think that choosing to tell a story with this level of depth and character arc … is also ambitious in and of itself,” said Herbsman. “It’s not a show everyone has seen or heard of, [and] I love that because I think we get to make our own version of it.” 

The producers and cast are excited about how students and other young people will engage with the show’s implicit messages regarding growing up amidst the turbulence of the world, which some feel is particularly poignant for younger audiences. 

“I hope that audiences … can take this [as] an opportunity to reflect on what it means to grow up. What are the ethics of [growing] up and growing into yourself and how we can change,” Lucia Ferris ‘24 (Angus/Caterpillar 1) said. 

On a performance level, many cast members feel that the production has been conducive to helping improve their acting skills.

“Although [‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Alice By Heart’] have given me opportunities to grow in terms of character work and also singing, ‘Alice By Heart’ feels a lot more introspective and is offering more of an opportunity to explore a wide variety of emotions,” said Ferris. 

In addition to improving one’s acting skills, Herbsman shares her hopes for what the cast will learn from the show. “I hope that my students take away the experience and excitement of what it means to storytell,” she said.

For Herbsman, the production offers both an acting opportunity, as well as space for cast members to understand their own power through performance, especially for students who may have not been able to do so before. 

“As a teacher, I’m always trying to think about who has the least power in my class and what can I do to look out for those students,” said Herbsman. “Most of the characters in this show hold very little power with some obvious exceptions, so I hope it’s a chance to play around with ways that they may find their power or their voices in their own lives.” 

Similarly to Urban’s rendition of “Pride and Prejudice” this fall, some feel the rehearsal schedule is intense. Rehearsals can range from nine to 15 hours per week, ramping up as the production draws closer to opening. They consist of vocal warm ups, staging, choreography, dialect coaching and song rehearsals. Despite the intense rehearsal schedule, students still express their excitement and joy for bringing the production to life. 

Sephora Haileselassie ‘24 (Angus 2/Caterpillar 2) said, “I’ve been sore but it’s actually really fun [and] I’m glad I did it because I feel like I tapped into a new side of myself.”

This year’s Winter Production also marks the final musical in Urban’s Gumption Theater, with the new Performing Arts Center finalizing construction for its opening in the fall of 2024.

Herbsman kept this in mind when selecting “Alice By Heart.” “Knowing that this is our last musical in the Gumption for the foreseeable future, I wanted to think of a way that we could really celebrate this space,” said Herbsman. 

“‘Alice By Heart’ takes place in a very cramped space where people are shoved really close together, but then the world opens up into this mystical world and to me that’s Gumption,” said Herbsman. “Gumption is a really heartfelt place and I wanted to pick a show that was heartfelt.” 

Within this theater, soon to be overflowing with people and show pieces, is a sense of excitement and anticipation. Sephora Haileselassie said, “I’m excited by the new world we are creating [which is] something that Urban has never seen before. It’s very magical and whimsical [and] I hope [audiences] will take … home [the] meaningful connections with the character and themselves.”


Cast List:

Minna Lezak ‘24 — Alice

Paris Cardenas ‘24 — Alfred/White Rabbit/March Hare

Viva Wertz ‘24 — Red Cross Nurse/Queen of Hearts

Zia DiFrancesco ‘24 — Dodgy/Duchess

Harry Setrakian ‘24 — Dr. Butridge/King of Hearts/Jabberwock 1

Isaiah Moliga-Puletasi ‘24 — Young Alfred/Jabberwock 3/Mock Mock Mock Mock Turtle

Sephora Haileselassie ‘24 — Angus 2/Caterpillar 2

Eliot Solomn ‘24 — Harold/Mad Hatter

Daisy Meritt ‘24 — Tabatha/Cheshire Cat

Lucia Ferris ‘24 — Angus/Caterpillar 1

Nina Oberfest ‘24 — Clarissa/Queen of Diamonds

Jaxon Howard ‘24 — Dr. 2/Jabberwock 2

Anushka Chandran ‘25 — Knave of Hearts/Mock Turtle

Sophia Toussaint ‘25 — Knave of Spades/Mock Mock Turtle

Eamon Matthew ‘25 — Nigel/Dormouse

Si Wyman ‘26 — Young Alice/Caterpillar 3/Mock Mock Mock Turtle

Diego Vaznaugh-Sanchez ‘26 — Knave of Clubs/Mock Mock Mock Mock Mock Turtle

About the Contributor
Isaiah Moliga-Puletasi
Isaiah Moliga-Puletasi, Staff Writer