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'The Wiz Jr.' retells classic tale with jazzy dimension, opening Nov. 15 at Beavercreek Grange

When Michelle Leigh was 9, she was so scared by the movie version of "The Wiz" that she ran out of the theater when Evilene came onscreen. Fast forward to now, and Leigh, the founder of Oregon City Children's Theatre, is directing a production of "The Wiz Jr.," opening Nov. 15.

The musical is not an exact reproduction of "The Wizard of Oz," but instead retells the classic story in a "slightly different dimension. (It is the) story and characters we all know and love, but reimagined and given a lot of soul," Leigh said.

There are 22 performers in the cast; the youngest is 6 and the oldest is well into adulthood. The biggest challenges of the show made doing the production gratifying, Leigh said.

These include finding costumes that range from the familiar to the reimagined, and managing to deliver a variety of specific settings on a small stage without skimping on the "splendor of live theater," Leigh said.

She is proud to say that costumer Becky Pentacost and set designer John Steele have risen to the challenge of giving the show visual appeal.

Leigh also noted that her daughter and choreographer Beth Dodge and music director Lacy Redmond have come up with creative dance routines and song stylings.

"So many numbers stand out for different reasons. For the audience there are opportunities to laugh, cry and truly feel emotionally connected," she said.

Leigh noted that this version of "The Wiz" is the junior version, so it has a shortened running time and is appropriate for all ages.

"The performers who have taken on the lead roles have been with OCCT for years, where they have learned and grown and become truly dynamic on stage," Leigh said.

"The core characters of this production are strong and hold the show together as they travel through this Land of Oz in search of the mysterious Wiz," she said.

Lead characters include Hannah Kemeny as Dorothy, J.R. Nelson as the Scarecrow, Maggie MacKenzie as the Tin Man, and A.J. Gaytan as the Lion.

"They have taken on so much for their young ages and have risen above my expectations as both leaders for the cast and performers in a grueling show," Leigh said.

Becoming Dorothy

"Dorothy is a sweet girl, who is also very naive and innocent. Very early in the show, we see she loves her dog, Toto, and her aunt and uncle," Kemeny said.

Her character has good intentions, she noted, but often gets lost in her fantasies.

"Dorothy really matures throughout the show. She learns empathy, and what it means to be a good friend," Kemeny said.

She added that her favorite part of playing Dorothy is not only her sweet nature, but also her bravery and spunk.

It is well known in theater circles that actors cannot compete with a dog onstage, so what was it like to work with Mario, the pup playing Toto?

He "has been an absolute joy to work with. He is a little ball of energy, running all over the place," Kemeny said. "It's been great bonding with Mario and seeing him play with fellow cast members."

COURTESY PHOTO - Hannah Kemeny plays Dorothy in the Oregon City Children's Theatre production of 'The Wiz Jr.' The biggest challenge for her has been dealing with the pressure of playing the main character.

"Dorothy is my first lead role, and I, of course, want to do my very best not just for everyone else, but myself as well," Kemeny said.

"I have been working hard to make Dorothy not a character, but a real person we can all relate to. Also, being one of the older kids of the cast, it's very important I set a good example for everyone," she said.

Audience members will love seeing this cherished classic reimagined, Kemeny said, adding that this version brings a new, upbeat jazzy twist to the original.

"You can't help but fall in love with the amazing music. I think many will be impressed by how our amazing team of volunteers at OCCT has really made the Land of Oz come to life," Kemeny said.

Ease on down the road

What: Oregon City Children's Theatre presents "The Wiz Jr."

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15, 16 and 22 and at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 23

Where: The Beavercreek Grange, 22041 S. Kamrath Road, Oregon City

More: For tickets and more information, visit occtheatre.org.

Coming up: OCCT guarantees a role to all who register and audition for the group's next production, a nonmusical version of "Peter Pan." Details are available on OCCT's website.


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