Munchkins are gleefully rejoicing, Dorothy’s ruby pumps sparkle and Toto is behaving like a pro. The magical journey to Oz is taking shape as the Muse Machine, Dayton’s premier arts education organization celebrating its 30th anniversary, puts the finishing touches on its highly anticipated presentation of L. Frank Baum, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the Muse’s 28th annual student musical slated for January 12-15 at the Victoria Theatre.
Blessed with such beloved tunes as “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Were King of the Forest,” “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” and “If I Only Had a Brain, “Oz” will be comprised of over 100 Muse students from across the Miami Valley on stage, backstage, and in the orchestra pit. Eighty additional youngsters from Dayton Public Schools will be assembled as citizens of Munchkinland. Principals include Madeline Shelton as Dorothy Gale, Dan Baugn as Hunk/Scarecrow, Davis Sullivan as Hickory/ Tin Man, Jeremiah Plessinger as Zeke/Cowardly Lion, Hayley Penchoff as Glinda, Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo as Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West, and Cameron Elliott as Professor Marvel, the Gatekeeper and the title role.
The large scale production, which uses John Kane’s familiar Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of the iconic 1939 film, notably marks the directorial return of Drama Desk Award nominee Rufus Bonds, Jr. (“The Color Purple,” “The Lion King,” “Parade,” “Rent”) alongside New Orleans-based veteran Muse choreographer Lula Elzy. Muse Machine alum Timothy Olt, who has provided musical arrangements for the Muse summer concerts since 2009, serves as musical director, replacing longtime Muse musical director David Dusing.
With opening night practically within reach, the artistic team meticulously fine-tuned various elements at a recent rehearsal, fueling the Muse’s reputation for producing professional-caliber results. Bonds cautioned Baugn and Shelton to be mindful of the pace when the Scarecrow introduces himself to Dorothy. Following Shelton’s beautifully sincere rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” Olt advised her to use her instincts as a vocalist. During repeated run-throughs of “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” which incorporates twirls, firm arm movements, sharp hand gestures, and Elliott’s skillful tap dancing, Elzy encouraged the ensemble to remember the overall goal. “We’re striving for perfection,” she said. “You’re not performing for the audience, you’re in a scene. You’re having a conversation within the dance.”
Unlike his bold, reimagined approach to “Into the Woods” that startled Sondheim purists last year, Bonds says he purposefully strayed from conceptually tinkering with “Oz.” He approved inserting the jazzy if obscure “Jitterbug,” famously cut from the film yet retained in the score, but assures audiences the show is fundamentally based on the film’s roots and universal message.
“I kept the show as true as I could to the movie,” he said. “It’s what we know. It’s what we love. I didn’t want to put my own spin on it. I want the show to stay true to the integrity of the piece. The show is about possibilities, finding happiness. And happiness leads to finding a home, which is the foundation of your joy.”
Olt, a 1985 graduate of Kettering Fairmont High School and adjunct music professor at Miami University and Ohio Northern University, particularly finds enjoyment in the cast’s openness to discover “Oz” beyond the surface. In fact, he believes the show’s underlying themes continue to resonate with great meaning.
“’The Wizard of Oz’ has always been a part of my life, but when you’re young you don’t catch everything,” he said. “So I saw the movie again not too long ago and noticed issues such as segregation, slavery and discrimination. There really is a lot going on. And it’s great that the cast recognizes this show is more than just a musical.”
Muse memorably presented “Oz” in 1996 featuring a cast that included Tyler Maynard (currently appearing on Broadway in “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever”), Jill Paice (who recently appeared in “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse) and Tory Ross (who returns to Dayton next month starring as Rosemary Clooney in the Human Race Theatre Company’s production of the musical “Tenderly”). According to producer Douglas Merk, the organization had not planned to stage the show again, but ultimately felt it was the best option artistically and financially for 2012.
“’The Wizard of Oz’ has a positive message, is perfect for families and seemed to be the most viable for us in these difficult economic times,” he said. “A lot of theaters are struggling right now, but the reaction so far has been great. Many people are thrilled that we are doing it.”
Although the excitement of unveiling “Oz” is apparent for all involved, the fun and solidarity established during the rehearsal process has proven equally gratifying. Fittingly, the joy that will be evident on the Victoria stage will be a genuine reflection of the friendships within the cast.
“The Muse Machine offers the best of both worlds,” said understudy Steven Hix. “It’s about more than just the show. It’s a chance to meet so many special people.”
“The Wizard of Oz” will be presented Jan. 12-15 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$59. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com