Founded in 1938, Racine Theatre Guild (RTG) has grown in reputation throughout the decades. Today, with many devoted volunteers and a professional staff, RTG annually produces eight mainstage plays and musicals—in addition to a wide variety of shows under the auspices of Racine Children’s Theatre, Jean’s Jazz Series, Comedy Tonight and the Signature Spotlight Concert Series. It also offers theater classes for children and adults.
For three years in a row (1995-’97), Racine Theatre Guild put on a live production of The Wizard of Oz based upon the beloved 1939 classic of the silver screen. Those shows were directed by Norman McPhee, who served as RTG’s managing and artistic director for 32 years before retiring in 2001. RTG’s leader in those capacities since, Douglas Instenes, was new to the company at the time of those Oz productions. He recalls that those RTG takes on the film strayed somewhat from its well-known orthodoxy. “It had the Wicked Witch and two other evil witches who were her friends and a skeleton called Tibia that served the witch. It didn’t have a dog, either. It was very different from the movie, except all the major songs were included.”
Racine Theatre Guild hasn’t returned to the wonderful land of Oz since 1997, but that’s all about to change. This month, the company is producing The Wizard of Oz in a version that is much more faithful to the film. “The adaptation we are doing is the Royal Shakespeare Company version, which is extremely similar to the movie. Its credits state that its music and lyrics are from the MGM motion picture score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, with background music by Herbert Stothart and book adaptation by John Kane from the motion picture screenplay,” Instenes explains.
Certainly, there must be challenges to putting on a show that virtually everyone has seen in its familiar original form. In this case, the audience—even many of the children—can be expected to know practically every word and every scene. Suffice it to say that any theater company tackling The Wizard of Oz has some very big ruby red slippers to fill, indeed.
Bringing a Legend of the Silver Screen to the Live Stage
“At our first meeting, I talked to the cast and crew about honoring the movie and people’s expectations, but also having some creative freedom,” Instenes says. “If people want to see the movie, they can just watch it at home. It needs to be a little different. There will be a few surprises along the way. There are a few things that were cut from the movie. Do the monkeys really have to be in masks and the witch totally in black? What should the talking trees look like? The issue, of course, is to take the spirit of the big-budget movie and create the magic on stage with a limited budget. That requires some creativity.”
“There are new parts of our musical that you didn’t see in the original film, which I think sets it apart and gives it some surprise,” says Jenna Zeihen—Dorothy in the production—who’s been with the company since she was 10 years old. Her previous roles in RTG productions include those of Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street (2009, 2010); The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol—The Musical (2017, 2018); and Molly Aster in Peter and the Starcatcher last season. Now, she’s taking on Judy Garland’s most memorable role.
“Judy Garland herself—one of my lifelong idols—embodies the essence of Dorothy so perfectly,” Zeihen explains. “Wearing those ruby slippers feels like an honor. Our entire cast and crew is so kind and patient with me. I really have the most amazing family to perform this with. Ten-year-old Jenna used to look at the photos of RTG’s Wizard of Oz production from the ’90s that hang on the wall in the Green Room, and I remember asking if the show would ever be done again. I’m so thankful it is. I hope everyone that sees it can truly feel the love and magic this story brings and walk away carrying that love with them.”
There are so many characters in The Wizard of Oz to love (or love to hate… or fear); but, next to that of Dorothy, the other one that truly has to work on all levels for the show to come off right is the actress incarnating her nemesis: the Wicked Witch of the West, so legendarily, so terrifyingly embodied in the film by Margaret Hamilton. RTG’s Jamie Johnson—whose first engagement with the company was in a 2002 production of Annie—is excited about this opportunity to play a character so unremittingly evil.
“I’m having so much fun with this role! I don’t normally get to play the villain,” Johnson says. “Compared to my last major role on this stage as Mary Poppins, it’s completely on the other end of the spectrum, so it’s really making me think and stretch my acting ability. As with Mary, I want to be sure to stay true to the core of how she lives in the audience’s minds; but at the same time, I want to put my own stamp on her. I get to do some really fun things with special effects and wear a fantastic costume, which always helps when you are trying to develop a character. Roles like the Wicked Witch of the West certainly come with big expectations, but I’m excited for the challenge, grateful for the opportunity and really look forward to bringing her to life on our stage.”
And, yes, this production includes a real live Toto. “This play does require a real dog, so that has been fun but challenging,” Instenes says. “As long as you have a treat, you are good to go, but we will see what happens when we get an audience.”
“My longtime friend has two sweet little dogs [Vixy and, serendipitously enough, Ruby]. She texted me before our first rehearsal that they would be playing Toto,” Zeihen adds. “Working with a live dog and building that connection is so special. I know the audience will immediately fall in love with Toto, and I think it’s so unique that Katelyn [the dogs’ owner and a cast member] has worked so closely with them to do this show; I can’t wait for you all to see them!”
Dec. 13-22 at Racine Theatre Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave., Racine. For tickets, call 262-633-4218 or visit racinetheatre.org.
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