In 1899, L. Frank Baum penned a story of a Kansas farm girl and her fantastical adventures over the rainbow that became forever ingrained in pop culture with a 1939 movie. For most people, simply hearing the words “The Wizard of Oz” is likely to conjure extravagant visions of a dark, swirling cyclone, witches, munchkins, flying monkeys, a yellow brick road, ruby red slippers and three endearing characters and the loveliest of heroines.
If that’s the image that comes to you, you might wonder how Sierra Repertory Theatre (SRT) intended to produce such an extravagant musical this summer on the stage at the Fallon House Theatre in Columbia. Wondering just that, I spoke with Jerry Lee, SRT’s marketing director, to learn how preparations for the big show got underway in May.
“We’re going to present a lavish musical,” said Lee, who co-directs the show with Producing Artistic Director Scott Viets. “There are so many pieces to the puzzle: scenic and lighting design, costumes, backstage crewing/tracking, dog handling, puppetry and puppet-making, and our brand new projection design system that we are debuting with this production.”
Lee’s list made me wonder more about bringing all these elements together to create the spectacle I have in mind.
“We’re relying on simple storytelling that doesn’t halt the flow,” Lee said. “The magic will come from the stagecraft.” He nevertheless admits there are a lot of pieces. “It’s heady to consider.”
The production is so big that Viets and Lee actually resorted to storyboarding the show.
“That’s something that’s usually done in the movies,” Lee said.
“There are so many expectations with shows like ‘Oz,’” said Viets in a release. “It’s a delicate balance in deciding what we want to pay homage to and what we want to reimagine for ourselves. We don’t want to recreate the movie onstage because … what would be the point of that? What we can do is find clever ways to make visual references to the iconic movie and explore the play honestly and sincerely, so we don’t lose any of what makes Dorothy’s story so powerful.”
“She lives with Aunty Em and Uncle Henry, so we asked ourselves, ‘Where are her parents?’” Lee said. “That’s when we realized how lonely Dorothy is. She only has Toto. So we are dealing with the idea of loneliness.”
That was an interesting perspective regarding Dorothy, whom Lee proclaims “is the person you want on your side; she turns all of the conflicts she encounters into something positive.” Understandably, the director and the actor have to think deeply about the intentions that underlie the action. In early May, that was one of the things Viets and Lee considered.
But they were thinking of other things as well, costumes, for instance.
“Dorothy’s dress – the blue gingham pinafore – is tried and true, but we are playing with the costume of the Wicked Witch; gothic mixed with sleek, conveying villain without being terrifying,” Lee envisioned, his imagination engaging before my eyes.
Costume designer Dianna Newington is tasked with bringing her artistry to the ideas the guys came up with.
From there, Lee segued to scenic design.
“Sean Fanning, who did ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ is retuning,” he said. “He’s clever and talented and knows how to take the limitations of the Fallon House into consideration.”
To my mind, it was going to take considerable cleverness to move the action from Kansas to Munchkinland, down a yellow brick road to a cornfield, an apple orchard, a dark forest and a field of poppies all the way to the Emerald City. Lee was clearly confident this would happen under Fanning’s watch.
Nate Parde enhances the set design with lighting, creating what Lee calls “saturated landscapes.” Remember the story opens in dreary, sepia-toned farmland and moves to vibrant Technicolor. This is Parde’s first time at the Fallon House, but SRT is adept at hiring skillful designers to manage the stagecraft that underlies the magic onstage.
And then there’s sound.
“We forget how much sound informs theater,” Lee declared. “For example, as the storm grows, the voices have to soften.”
Tatianna Covington-Parra does the sound design.
Since the production is also a musical, “Sean Paxton is creating a beautiful track,” Lee disclosed. “Even the underscore is gorgeous.”
The production also includes the Jitterbugs, which are in Baum’s book but not the 1939 movie.
And let’s not forget Toto; three dogs will alternate among the performances, which means there will be a dog handler on the set.
“That dog just might steal the show,” Lee joked.
Viets, Lee and the team at SRT have put this jigsaw puzzle of creative elements together for the troupe’s tentpole summer show. Whether it’s your first trip to Oz or your 100th, it’s a magical journey that plays through July 21. Reserve your seats at sierrarep.org or call 532-3120.