Go ‘Into the Woods’ With Carolee Carmello, Patti Murin, Manu Narayan and Joe Serafini

Pittsburgh CLO’s production of the Sondheim-Lapine musical is packed with stage and screen stars and local lore

UPDATE: On Sunday, June 25, a decision was made to give “Twan Baker” a rest for this CLO production, and another prop baby will take his place.


The scene, a quiet room, atop the Benedum Center. The time, an hour before rehearsals resume. The players, four actors taking part in a beloved Sondheim musical, gathered to discuss how the heck they are going to absorb a tangle of tongue-twisting, fast-paced lyrics in the next few days.

Next? Just lean in and enjoy the ride. 

The cast of this lunchtime conversation touched down for CLO’s famously compressed prep time, carrying  with them credentials that add to the aura of excitement surrounding Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Into the Woods, opening Tuesday at the Benedum Center.

Two among the quartet, seated side by side, are native Pittsburghers who in 2021 helped CLO celebrate its 75th anniversary in an Acrisure Stadium concert:

Manu Narayan, the Delmont native who was last seen on Broadway in Sondheim’s Company, will play The Baker in his first CLO musical since the 1990s. Joe Serafini of Bethel Park, who went from CLO Mini Star to playing Seb in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+, will play Jack in Into the Woods – a role he played at CLO Academy when he was 15. 

That show “was all kids, so it was a little different,” he recalled with a smile.

More than a little different for both Serafini and the current production is Jack’s scene partner, Milky White, the cow “with skin as white as snow” that will be brought to life by puppeteer Lu Zielinski (CLO’s Puffs). 

Serafini, 25, was being ever-so gently teased for “cheating” by his castmates, as the lone actor in the room who had been in a previous production of the show – even though it was 10 years earlier, as a teenager.

The other duo in the room included a member of the Disney Theatricals family, Patti Murin, also known as Anna in Broadway’s Frozen. At least as impressive, she gave birth to a daughter on April 7, and is now in Pittsburgh, preparing to play The Baker’s Wife. 

Lorelai is her second child with husband Colin Donnell (soon to be back on Broadway in The Shark is Broken).

Prepare to get jealous, any new parent who has experienced sleepless nights. 

“I have a great babysitter that’s local and my daughter’s also kind of miraculous because she sleeps like eight to 10 hours at night,” Murin said.

At this Carolee Carmello, whose Broadway credits range from the original Lucille Frank in Parade to, appropriately, the Stepmother in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella, lets it be known that the last time she was performing in Pittsburgh – in 2000, playing Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes – she was pregnant with her second child. 

Her son is a local now, having recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and settling into a job here.

Carmello’s Pittsburgh connections began in 1989, when she played sweet Sandy in Grease for CLO. This time around, she plays The Witch.

With these four and their varied backgrounds, now entangled together in the Woods, you never knew where a question might take you. 


Joe Serafini as Seb in the Disney+ Original Series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

For instance, on this particular day, news had arrived that the upcoming fourth season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+ would be its last.

“We kind of had a feeling when we were filming it, but it wasn’t official until last week,” Serafini said. “We hopped on Zoom and [Pittsburgh native and series creator Tim Federle] officially told us all, before the news was going to drop. But we were kind of prepared.”

Serafini said that fans will get closure, with the series “tied in a nice little bow” at the end. It is not, however, the end for Seb and Frankie – Joe and Frankie Rodriguez.

His name came up when the quartet was asked about stage-door fans.

“It’ll be fun,” Serafini said of meeting fans. “I’m almost more worried for my boyfriend, who’s on the show with me. He’ll be at opening night, and I’m a little worried …”

Carmello jumped in to ask who Serafini was talking about.

“His name’s Frankie,” Serafini said. “We play boyfriends on the High School Musical series together, and we’ve been dating for four years.”

If Joe is worried, it might be because Seb and Frankie together could cause a bit of a stir for fans in Pittsburgh.


When Narayan stepped back into the Benedum Center, he had a quick reunion with a Broadway castmate. Company costar Rashidra Scott had just finished playing Reno Sweeny in CLO’s summer season opener and was on her way out the door in the revolving door of Broadway to Pittsburgh this season.

That’s the thing about incoming performers of a single CLO show – you’re here and gone in a flash. Or, as Carmello put it in a tweet – reposted and widely seen on The Stephen Sondheim Group Facebook page – it’s like being #shotoutofacannon.

“It’s really scary right now, to just try to absorb all the lyrics. Mostly that’s the challenge,” Carmello said.

Serafini said, hardest for him, are the list songs, and Carmello, illustrating by scatting rhymes, added, “Every time you say into the woods [what’s] next is different every single time. So that’s what’s kind of giving me a headache right now.”


Murin recalled that her future high school performed Into the Woods, but she was shown a PBS Great Performances version in a music class, and was hooked.

“I spent probably the next two years with a CD of the cast recording, with the big booklet, and being like, ‘Who do I wanna be? Do I wanna be Little Red? Do I wanna be Cinderella? The Witch? I wanted them all. It was like a  heaven of musical theater, you know?”

She is perfectly fine that she has landed her current role because “now I’m in Baker’s Wife territory, and I really, really like it.”

The fractured fairy-tale musical, with a libretto by James Lapine, had a big impact on the 2022-23 Broadway season, when it was nominated for six Tony Awards. The 1988 original won three, including best score and book.

Into the Woods was nominated for ten 2002 Tony Awards and won Best Revival that year, with the recorded voice of Dame Judi Dench as the Giant. In 2023, for CLO, the Giant’s voice is provided by Sally Wiggin

A major theme of the show is family dynamics, because, you know, “children will listen.”

Patti Murin starred as Anna in Broadway’s Frozen. (Image: Justin Patterson)

Murin saw the recent revival at City Center, before it transferred to Broadway.

“It was the first time I’d seen it as a mother, and it’s just turned the entire thing completely upside down,” she said. “It just means everything … about wanting a child and having a child and raising a child … I have to shut down my emotional side while we learn things, because I can’t just sob through all the rehearsals.”

Murin has a big following, more than 48,500 strong, on social media. That’s partly because she can be provocative and entertaining, but also because she has been very open about her mental health struggles. 

A group of Twitter followers who were Frozen fans bonded as they were responding to her tweets about mental health, “and now they’re all like a group of really great friends,” she said.

Some of them have let Murin know that they are traveling  to Pittsburgh to see her in Into the Woods

“They’re like the best kind of supporters and fans to have, because they love theater, and they are respectful. They are wonderful,” Murin said.


Manu Narayan (center left, in vest) and the cast of Broadway’s Company perform the opening number on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Narayan is not just returning home in a leading man role for CLO – he now is a father, playing a man trying desperately to become one.

“This show is so meaningful in many of the ways other people have said, because two and a half years ago, we had our first child, a daughter. And for me, the show never really resonated with me. I don’t think I paid attention enough. … But now doing it, it’s pretty amazing,” he said.

The previous time Narayan was in a CLO musical – in 1995’s Godspell – his father suffered a heart attack just before the tech rehearsal, and had open heart surgery.

“That run was two weeks, and he came with a cane to see the last performance, after his open heart surgery. And since then, 20 years later, my father passed,” said Narayan, adding that his own journey to fatherhood had some road blocks.

“So the father-son stuff, The Baker and Baker’s Wife stuff – all of this resonates very deeply for me.”


Besides family, work brings Narayan, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, home every so often. He had a role in Billy Porter’s Prime Video movie, Anything’s Possible, which filmed here in 2021.

Both Narayan and Serafini are in demand from friends and family in this short burst of rehearsal and performance.

“There’s really not enough days to see everybody,” Serafini said. “The problem is, every night somebody wants to have dinner, and then people are coming to see the show … I feel bad. I want to see everybody, and I’m so thankful that people love us enough to want to come and see us, but …”

He laughs. “I’m here for work. I’m not here to socialize. We really are hitting the ground running, and I don’t feel like I have time to see people.”

“My mom was very disappointed I’m not staying with her,” Narayan chimed in. “I was like, ‘No, mom, you get the dogs, and I’m gonna stay Downtown. This is work.”


Carmello, who last worked here 23 years ago, visited Pittsburgh recently for her son’s graduation from Pitt. He has taken a job here, which means she may be visiting more often. 

When the interviewer (me) admitted that she was a little bit obsessed speaking with the original Lucille Frank from the Tony-winning Parade, the room lit up: 

“Oh my God. Me, too!”

“Honestly. Me, too!” 

“Thanks for opening that up!”

“You can’t be weird in the first couple of days, but like, I can be weird now? …”

When things calmed down, Carmello said she had not seen the new production that had just won the Tony as Best Revival. She had a great excuse, though – she was working.

“As soon as we closed, I started doing a bunch of other things and trying to learn this, so I’m going to see it when I get back,” she said. “But it was very weird because I was doing Bad Cinderella on 45th Street, right across the street from them. I stood in the middle of the street one day and I was like, ‘Wow, this is my whole.’”

“You were bookended, right there,” Serafini said. 

“Beginning and end … End? No, not the end!,” Carmello said, laughing.

Carmello added that she is “thrilled” that Parade is getting attention again “because it’s a beautiful show and the first time around, it didn’t have a long run. I mean, I enjoyed every second of it, but it didn’t really have that kind of attention, so it’s great that it’s getting that now.”

With so many roles to choose from, her fans most often want to talk about Parade and another, very different show that she starred in for four years.

“For theater people, it’s usually Parade. For non-theater people, it’s usually Mamma Mia!,” she said.


When Into the Woods is done, Murin packs up and heads to The MUNY in St. Louis, where she’ll star in Little Shop of Horrors July 25 – 31.

The back-to-back musicals for a new mom isn’t a big deal, she said. 

“I got the [CLO] offer and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’ll be like 10 weeks after I have the kid. Sure. Actually, four weeks after I had her, I went to Connecticut for three weeks to do a movie,” she said. 

The MUNY, however, is a bit of a homecoming – it’s where her husband grew up and his family is there.

“So I’ll be taking the baby there with me again,” Murin said. “She’s just so portable. They’re so easy to travel at this point. And then, you know, she’ll get a lot of grandma and grandpa time, and then after that, I’m going to take a hot break.”


Speaking of holding babies, Murin and Narayan will be holding a prop baby onstage that is part of CLO and Broadway lore.

“Oh my God! Is it really Twan Baker?,” Murin asked.

Yes, it is. A little background:

“Twan Baker” was born during the summer of 2009, when CLO delivered another star-studded cast for a production of Into the Woods. Hunter Foster and Brynn O’Malley played The Baker and The Baker’s Wife, and they became enamored with the prop doll that was in the CLO prop shop, headed by Marty Savolskis.

The “baby” was named Twan, and Foster’s wife, Jen Cody, became its caretaker. Twan, who has since been seen on stages from Pittsburgh to Broadway, is coming home for this production …

“Wait,” said Serafini, in mock dismay. “You mean a prop made it to Broadway before I did?”


But before you all go … 

Why do you think people connect with Into the Woods, perhaps more than any other Sondheim musical?


“Well, it’s based in fairy tales, but it feels very relevant,” she said. “You know, it doesn’t feel like a story that people won’t be able to find themselves in, or relate to. And it’s very funny – I think that’s important to tell audiences, because it is a Sondheim show, and they might not know what to expect from something that you don’t necessarily think of as being humorous. But it’s pretty darn entertaining.”

Serafini recalled director Scott Weinstein saying on the first day, “You grow up with the show.” It certainly looks different to Serafini than it did when he was 15.

“Even just Jack’s journey of going to see the Giants in the sky and coming back and seeing his perspective shift, I feel like I’ve had that experience, leaving Pittsburgh and coming back and having a new perspective now,” Serafini said.

“I think it’s one of [Sondheim’s] most accessible shows because of the characters that he uses, and because of the messages,” Murin said. “And I think that there are maybe more tuneful moments in this show than there are in a lot of his other shows …”

“She can say that because he’s gone,” Carmello said of Sondheim, to a round of laughter. “Write a tune, for God’s sake!”

It was left to Narayan to wrap up the scene on a more serious note.

The “universal parable” of Into the Woods, is, “what it means to be alive today. Is it good? Is it bad? What’s the middle path we take?,” Narayan said. “In that, it will resonate with anyone who wants to spend 2 ½ hours with us.” 


Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Into the Woods is at the Benedum Centre, Downtown, June 27-July 2, 2023. Visit, https://pittsburghclo.culturaldistrict.org/production/82446 or call 412-456-6666.

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