There is a place, somewhere over the rainbow, wherein at least once in our lives we travel to with awe—perhaps a little trepidation. Mostly, though, we welcome its childlike sense of adventure that will never go away. The initial journey through Oz—down that famous yellow brick road to the Emerald City with hopes of seeing the Wizard, Glinda as our guide, and all the while avoiding the Wicked Witch of the West—tells a story which lingers in the hearts and minds of all who see it.
Released in 1939 to the silver screen, “The Wizard of Oz” stepped up as a film masterpiece because of its Technicolor use. It captivated audiences across the United States because of its time period—when the black and white of everyday life could only be escaped by the illuminated hues of vivid images and lighthearted songs on the big screen. Nominated for multiple Academy Awards, the film continues to be listed American Film Institute’s series of “100 Best…”—in multiple categories that include “Best Movie,” “Best Heroes and Villains” and “Best Quotes.”
Under the experienced direction of Suellen Yates, the Opera House Theatre Company will open its season with this magical world on June 4th. Director Yates has been a lifelong fan of the story and its abundantly lyrical structure. It’s her first time directing the show.
“I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know the story and love the movie,” she clarifies. “The music always makes me smile and who can resist singing along?”
Donning the iconic blue gingham gown and ruby slippers will be Abbey Bowman, an actress who has portrayed a resident of Munchkinland earlier in her theatrical career. Now, she takes on the lead role of Dorothy Gale, one she has loved since childhood.
“[Dorothy] is one of those characters that you kind of always keep in your heart,” Bowman notes. “The music and dialogue sort of resonate with you for the rest of your life.”
Taking on a timeless classic is no easy feat. This particular production is a script adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and follows closely to the movie. “It has stood the test of time,” Yates says, “No drastic changes.”
There will be no shortage of magic in the production, either. Yates and the creative team are making sure of that, though to what extent will remain a mystery until the curtains rise on opening night. The team is looking forward to dazzling the audience: Terry Collins (set), Dallas LaFon and John Deveaux (lights and sound), Jason Aycock (choreography), and Juli Harvey (costumes), and an eight-piece orchestra led by Lorene Walsh.
“Performing live in front of an audience provides its own special alchemy with an audience,” Yates adds. Children ages 5 to 13 will become citizens of Munchkinland. And who can forget that adorable little dog, Toto?
“Working with any animal is challenging, since you can never be sure exactly what they will do,” Yates explains. “Luckily, he is my children’s dog, and they will be backstage with him, making sure he makes all his entrances and exits.”
The cast members take on multiple roles in the production—from trees to crows, to winkies, monkeys or Ozians (oh, my!). Jason Aycock will tackle the very physical role of the Scarecrow, as well as undertaking assistant director and choreographer duties. “All of our team is giving this our best because we love being a part of this story,” Aycock says.
The cast also faced the challenge of breathing their own life and instilling their own voices into these icons. After all, it’s hard to hear Dorothy and not think of Judy Garland—or Ray Bloger as the Scarecrow and Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion.
“I’ve enjoyed trying to find a balance [in] my portrayal of him and being able to pay homage to Bolger’s time enduring performance,” Aycock maintains.
“I think the popularity of the story and the character is kind of a double-edged sword,” Bowman adds. “It’s been hard not to just resort to trying to play it exactly like Judy Garland did, but I’ve been focusing on discovering everything I can about Dorothy and her life, and portraying her in the most honest way.”
Despite any pre-show jitters, Yates is the first to extol the virtues of the talent with which she works. “The leads are all very talented, experienced actors and singers who have embraced their characters and made them so lovable,” she praises. “Their incredible voices really do justice to the great music and helps make the songs that everyone has heard hundreds of times over sound new and fresh.”
The cast will be filled out with: Abby Bowman as Dororthy Gale, Tony Rivenbark as Professor Marvel/Wizard of Oz, Amy Tucker Morgan as Auntie Em/Glinda, Jason Hatfield as Uncle Henry/Guard, Chris Rickert as Zeke/Cowardly Lion, James Ellison as Hickory/Tinman, and Samantha Mifsud as Ms. Gultch/Wicked Witch of the West.
Opening night is Wednesday, June 4th, and the show will continue through Sunday, June 22nd.
The Wizard of Oz
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
June 4th-8th, 13th-15th, and 20th-22nd, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.