From February 8 the stage of the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, will transform into a wonderful land, complete with magic, munchkins and witches, as Packemin Productions brings to life the beloved musical, The Wizard of Oz. This pro-am production, which includes the classic songs made famous by Judy Garland and the MGM cast, is led by a cast of experienced performers including Laura Murphy as Dorothy, Jimmy Rees and the Scarecrow, multi-Mo Award winner Adam Scicluna as The Lion and Helpmann Award winner Luke Joslin as The Tinman. In addition, the leads will be joined on stage by a rotating cast of one hundred and fifty talented children, who are sure to delight audiences of all ages.
The production team and cast are eager to rise to the challenge of both meeting and exceeding the audience’s expectations, particularly as it is a story that is so well known. The wonderful world of Oz has held a place in the public imagination like few other fantasy creations and has inspired numerous interpretations, adaptations and appropriations. Most people have fond associations with Dorothy Gale and her adventures on the yellow brick road, whether through L. Frank Baum’s original novels, the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, or even the recent successful musical Wicked. The tales of Kansas and Oz continue to resonate and connect generations of children and adults, and when it comes to producing The Wizard of Oz for the stage, there is a sense of responsibility to the story and the joy it has brought to readers and audiences everywhere.
The cast are no strangers to performing for children. Murphy is better known for her role as Sparkles the Fairy on Channel 9’s Magical Tales, while Rees has a following for his role as Jimmy Giggles on ABC TV’s Giggle & Hoot. They are well aware of audience expectations as they take on the roles of such beloved children’s characters.
‘It’s a really respectful and loving production of a show that people love so much,’ says Murphy, who believes in the continuing relevance of Dorothy Gale, the character who comes of age and grows in strength and maturity over the course of the show. The accomplished singer and actress is more than ready to expand upon Judy Garland’s iconic portrayal of the young heroine, and remind audiences that it is Dorothy who possesses the brains, heart and courage to inspire and share with her travelling friends. ‘She’s very confident, very assertive,’ she notes, ‘and I think people are really going to empathise with Dorothy’s journey.’
The depth of Dorothy’s relationship with the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion is also touched upon, as they bond and form a pseudo-family unit. ‘What I’ve tried really hard to do is here is make them all very strong and different characters,’ says director, Neil Gooding. ‘They are kind of four misfits that are thrown together and become very good friends by the end of it, but it’s not instant friendship.’ In developing the dynamics between the four travellers for the stage, Gooding has endeavoured to bring to the foreground their different personalities and add nuances to their different relationships.
Zoe Tidemann, who plays the Wicked Witch of the West, is also faced with Margaret Hamilton’s definitive performance in the 1939 film, and the re-imagining of the character as Elphaba, the protagonist in Wicked. ‘It’s wonderful having so many sources to choose from, but ultimately I hope I’ve made it slightly my own,’ says Tidemann, who is looking forward to donning the green make-up, witch’s hat and broomstick. Performing the villainous role for an audience of both children and adults is a welcome challenge for the actress, who hopes that audiences are ‘ultimately entertained by (the witch); she is scary but she also has comic qualities’.
The production also embraces some of the more challenging aspects of staging The Wizard of Oz, including the casting of the well-trained and experienced canine, Miss Suzie, in the endearing role of Toto. ‘This show breaks all the rules,’ remarks Gooding. ‘You’re told never to work with children or animals but we’re doing both!’ The production utilises a core cast of forty children as well as a rotating cast of three groups of thirty five kids as the loveable munchkins, meaning that each performance involves over seventy children performing on stage. The children’s cast is drawn largely from schools and dance groups in the Hills District, although some children travel from as far away as Wollongong to participate in the show. ‘They are so good and so talented,’ says Murphy, who is sure that her younger cast mates will amaze audiences at every performance.
The grand scale of the performance is also sure to impress and surprise audiences, and the production has not shied away from the technical challenge of creating the enchanting special effects. ‘It’s a show that is full of magic,’ says Gooding. ‘We are flying people, there are fireballs on stage and there’s a live dog running around.’
For what is certain to be a magical theatrical experience for adults and kids alike, be sure not to miss Packemin Productions’ presentation of The Wizard of Oz at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from 8 February.
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