Small Actors, Big Stage

A Dozen Child Actors Play Munchkins When 'Wizard Of Oz' Lands At Lyric

November 08, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Pat-pat here, pat-pat there,

And a couple of brand-new straws;

That's how we keep you young and fair

In the Merry Old Land of Oz!

- E.Y. Harburg, lyricist

The notice for tryouts was like nothing Vicki Smith had seen, and she has been in the theater a long time.

Bring 12 performers, it said. Be sure they can sing and dance, that they show enthusiasm and that they're willing to commit a lot of time.

Oh, and be sure none is taller than 5 feet or weighs more than 100 pounds - otherwise, they'd never fit into their Munchkin togs.

Smith, an Anne Arundel performing arts teacher, has owned and run StageWorkz, a private instructional studio, since 2000, and her graduates have worked at dinner theaters and on Broadway. But she has never felt a greater sense of fulfillment than last month when she helped a dozen pint-size players get chosen to play the storied wee folk in a national touring production of "The Wizard of Oz" when it stops at the Lyric Opera next weekend.

"It's the biggest thing any of them has taken part in," says Smith of 10 girls and two boys who will sing, dance and fete the demise of the Wicked Witch with the Toto Touring Company on Nov. 13-15.

They'll be doing so alongside seasoned New York professionals in a house that seats nearly 2,600 people, all during the 70th anniversary of the treasured MGM film and the StageWorkz' 10th.

The key to landing the parts? Projecting energy - "the kind of thing you can't teach, that comes from in here," says Smith, tapping the part of her anatomy the Tin Man wanted to fill. At a recent rehearsal, the group's 19th, they gave off enough to power a Kansas tornado.

Bawling

They stand in groups of three in a spacious, gently worn studio, clad in identical green T-shirts, bowed and silent.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," trills an invitingly familiar female voice over a boom box, "and meet the young lady who fell from a star."

At those words from Glenda the Good Witch, 12 tiny figures spring into action. "And Kansas, she says, is the name of the star!" they cry, loud enough to shake a floor-to-ceiling mirror and in perfect tune.

The Munchkins are on, from 4-foot-2-inch Emme Sayers, 8, of Millersville to the 5-foot George Constantine, 12, of Severna Park, and for the next half-hour, as Smith and co-instructor Debbie Friedman direct, they create clashing and harmonizing lines, swirl in groups of shifting size and punctuate their steps with funny elfin poses.

"When certain characters say certain lines, we have to know exactly what to do," says Danielle Greco of Crofton, a stage veteran at 12. "The hardest thing is learning all these formations."

They've done so with a couple of weeks to spare, thanks largely to the coaching of a staff composed of performing arts veterans and working actors, including Larry Friedman of Severn, Debbie's husband and the father of Munchkin Kaila, 10.

Things weren't always this precise. As recently as early September, when Smith got the call for auditions in an e-mail, she had a hard time convincing many of her busy students that a stint as Munchkins would be worth the 12 hours of rehearsal time per week required by NETworks Presentation of Columbia, the parent company of Toto Touring Company.

By tryout time, instructors had spread the word among StageWorkz' 140 students and recommended some of the school's most talented performers, regardless of experience level.

Having rehearsed all of three times, the current 12 made it to the Lyric Opera House the morning of Oct. 3 to sing "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead" in a rehearsal studio packed with actors and parents, where they competed against two other talented groups from area studios.

The StageWorkz troupe members, decked out in their own striped socks, multicolored scarves and curly-toed shoes, were nervous at first, but "by the end, we were all having so much fun," says Taylor Baldwin, 10, of Millersville.

"They took instruction so well, and they had great, great energy," says Kim Reiter of NETworks, whose job title is currently "Munchkin Coordinator" (it's on her business card) and who ran the auditions.

When Reiter announced that these were her Munchkins, the room erupted in shrieks, sobs and cheers. "I was bawling," says Munchkin Lily West, 10, of Arnold. Parents rolled video and wiped their eyes.

Leah West (no relation to Lily) even went so far as to risk cooties. "I hugged the boys even though they're boys," she says.

Munchkins in every town

The Toto company has been on the road with the play for a year and a half, hitting towns from Baton Rouge, La., to Hershey, Pa. Chicago Stage Review called the production "a charming incarnation of the treasured American tale."

It's one that comes with updated pyrotechnics (the Flying Monkey guards are now earthbound "Winkies," also played by the Munchkin group, but the Wicked Witch still sets the Scarecrow on fire and melts in the aftermath) and a fresh song, "The Jitterbug," which was written for but didn't make the film 70 years ago.

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