Heritage students will travel down the yellow brick road this month as they present the newest play in the school’s repertoire, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Chris Hults, a graduate student at BYU, was brought in to direct the play, slated to be performed in the Loveland Performing Arts Center at Heritage on April 28 and 29.
“I have experience directing shows and working with youth,” Chris said. “Most was in Pennsylvania were my family lived the last 10 years.”
While many people think of the iconic 1939 movie of “The Wizard of Oz” as the standard by which all versions of the play should be held to, Heritage is opting for a tweaked version which Chris thinks matches the students better.
Chris said he and dramaturg Spencer Duncan started with two things. One was researching the L. Frank Baum versions of the story and the production history to learn how this story got to be what it is today.
The other was to talk with the kids.
“We just started hanging out, having conversations about the kinds of stories that engage them, what they enjoy and care about,” he said. “The movie is a combination of vaudeville and fantasy, a 1920s kind of fantasy. The story is episodic, not normal, common entertainment today.”
He said the kids weren’t especially connecting with that – they are more contemporary, cutting edge and modern.
“Putting those things together we came up with a way to tell the story that honors the script but the production design is a little different,” Chris said. “We bring it into modern day Kansas City – we like Kansas City because it exists in two states. In the play we have the waking state and the dream state.”
Shannon, who plays Dorothy, said she thought it would be the typical “Wizard of Oz” version.
“It isn’t like that at all,” she said. “The director wanted to switch things up a bit. It is fun to work with. It is going to be more modern.”
Dean, who plays the Tinman, agreed.
“The play is really genuine,” he said. “It has a cool story line that everyone will have to look out for; it’s different from what they might expect. “
Without giving too much of the story away audiences will be engaged in a play that keeps the original score but reverses the color and black and white sections of the story. It is a “think outside the box” account.
Chris said he wanted the students in the main roles to relate to their characters in modern terms.
“Dorothy is a runaway,” he said. “Her needs weren’t being met in her family situation so she’s thinking anyplace is better than where she was – which leads to that iconic song ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow.’”
Other characters follow suit.
“We’re engaging with the Tinman as someone suffering from loss and depression,” he said. “He’s defective, doesn’t have a heart, and he thinks one thing will solve his problem. The lion is a bully, he’s acting out to hide his fear. The Scarecrow is labeled as different; he’s not smart and can’t do his job. They all exist in the story and the actors have been able to pull them out.”
Chris said the ensemble of winkies, jitterbugs, monkeys and munchkins, have to operate as a unit.
“The ensemble has had to work really hard to connect,” he said. He said some students have dance experience but no singing or theater experience. “Others are amazing singers but have no dance experience.”
Katya, who plays a munchkin, said she was in a few school plays before coming to Heritage. Dean said he’s been acting since he was in kindergarten.
“I have unofficially acted at home by fake crying that is very believable,” he said. “I’ve been in several plays. I was the dodo bird in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Chip in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”
Chris said the hardest part of this experience was learning the structure of Heritage and the need for students to not abandon all else to put on this play.
“It’s sometimes difficult to find time and space to do what is needed,” Chris said. “They have tightly packed schedules – even something like going bowling! They have to learn lines and do other work outside of rehearsal and they do it. They’ve just been amazing. They are committed and respond really well.”
On the flip side he said the most rewarding part has been the feeling of inclusion.
“The extent to which they have included me in their community has been very rewarding,” he said. “I’m honored they they’ve let me in. I’m coming in as an outsider but they have, over the course of the time doing this, let me in. I’ve become a part of their group and community. That’s a gift; it makes me feel really good.”
Tweaked or not, the “Wizard of Oz” at Heritage proves to be as heartwarming as the original.
“The story is still the story and it’s just as powerful as the original story,” Chris said. “I get choked up every time we do the reprise of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ That’s because of the original story. Those songs are still in there. They have that same power and will be just as familiar.”
The play is open to the public and starts at 7 p.m. Tickets for open seating can be purchased at the door. Heritage School is at 5600 N. Heritage School Drive in Provo, Utah.