Follow the Yellow Brick Road to New Mirvish Production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Wizard of Oz’

We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful . . .

You just finished that in your head, didn’t you?

The Wizard of Oz has got to be right up there with the best of the musical classics that are constantly renewed for new generations to view on screen, stage, or in animation studio. From the Broadway hit Wicked to the upcoming origin story from Disney, Oz the Great and Powerful, the world of Oz has been revisited time and time again for more stories from the magical land of the yellow brick road.

But this winter, Mirvish Productions returns to the classic story of a young girl who needed to go to a land over the rainbow just to realize that there’s no place like home.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning new spin on the classic tale comes to the Toronto stage via London’s West End – but it’s no mere remake of the screen classic. This new production has brand new songs penned by Lloyd Webber and perennial collaborator Tim Rice, as well as custom-built sets, costumes, dances, and harmonies specific to the Toronto show – and an updated twist to familiar faces like the Wicked Witch and Glinda, her polar opposite.

But the newest aspect of this production, of course, is Danielle Wade. As with the London production, casting the role of Dorothy was placed in the hands of the public via Over the Rainbow, a CBC reality show competition designed to show off the Canadian talent that would be narrowed down to one. In the end, it came down to AJ, Danielle, and Stephanie; but it was Danielle who was the people’s choice to play Dorothy out of a host of hopefuls across Canada.

Mirvish recently held a preview event at the Wallace Film Studio in Toronto’s own West End, where members of the press were allowed a sneak peak at some of the dance numbers by the show’s all-Canadian cast (specifically, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “Emerald City”) as well as costume designs for The Wizard of Oz. The performers were decked out in street clothes, for the most part, but probably more for our benefit than theirs, a number of important characters wore role-specific items that visually denoted who they were meant to be.

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The Tin Man (actor and choreographer Mike Jackson) was decked out in a button-down shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and dark pants, but with a utility belt to hold his Tin Man axe secure around his hips. The Lion (Lee MacDougall) wore the lion’s-tail section of his costume secured around his waist, Jamie McKnight’s Scarecrow was decked out in a pair of scruffy yellow shoes that looked ready to have the straw stuffing knocked out of them, and naturally, Dorothy (Danielle Wade) wore the iconic ruby-red heels that have become so beloved around the world.

And of course, no visit to Oz would be complete without Toto . . . times three!

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Amidst the dancing, singing, and post-preview interviewing, Cadence had a chance to chat with Terry Shevchenko, who handles the three heart-melting and adorable Norfolk terriers, which take on the role of the most famous little dog on screen or stage.

“There isn’t a better role for a dog than Toto, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s iconic, and everyone knows the Wizard of Oz,” he says.

“We do dog agility at the Middlesex Dog Agility Club, and in 2009 one of the members said they were looking for a dog for the Wizard of Oz at the Grand Theatre. So they suggested Tilley, she’s the right size, she’s got the right look, she’s really smart, and she does agility really well,” he explains, holding the pooch in his arms as he speaks.

This is not her first Oz role, either, he reveals, which might explain the pup’s air of studied boredom.

“Oh, you’d like another close up, would you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, very well then, if we must . . .”

“We did an audition, and they said, ‘Yeah, you got the role,’” Terry continues, “And 55 shows later – no mistakes or anything – she was great. And because of that, people saw her on stage [and she] got to do two more Wizard of Oz [productions] for Drayton Entertainment – one in St Jacobs and one in Grand Bend. And we also did Annie Warbucks, which is the sequel to Annie, and she’s amazing in that as well.”

For a show like Mirvish’s, which is on for a longer run, it’s necessary to have multiple dogs – hence the trio of Totos – in case one is under the weather on any given day, so either of the others can take their place.

After this, we got to chat with Mike Jackson, the actor and choreographer who brings the Tin Man to life.

“There’s some different music, which is kind of really exciting,” he says of the production. “The witch has a fantastic number that she didn’t in the movie. The essentials of the story are the same – it’s still the same iconic, wonderful story. It’s an adaptation to the script. It has all these lines you’d expect, all the wonderful, sort of iconic things, but it’s a little bit more conversational.”

Jackson is a tall, well-built, soft-spoken man with an earnest, gentle smile, and he certainly looks like he’ll bring a lot of heart to the role of the Tin Man.

He’s also a big fan of the costume he wears to bring his character to life.

“It’s mostly plastic and foam; so where it can be foam it’s foam, and otherwise it’s hard plastic. My costume is really a prop. So the costume department makes the under layer, and it’s shopped out to a prop shop, and they build the actual pieces themselves and construct everything. In my fitting there are hammers and X-acto knives, yeah. It’s a little bit different from your average outfitting. It’s all in pieces that all connect to a main body part. It’s pretty amazing. It’s its own design, and it’s really clever. It’s amazing. It’s a little more broken down, a little more rusted than in the movie.”

Next, we sought out Dorothy’s dear Aunt Em, played by Charlotte Moore. Aside from playing Dorothy’s beloved relative, Moore also takes on other ensemble roles in the production, including playing a munchkin and a Lady of Oz. When asked what drew her to the production she says, “I just auditioned like anybody else. I came in and met the creative team, and they’re really great people. They’ve made a real effort to put together a group of nice people. So we have no eccentrics in the company; just everybody’s really good at their job, which is wonderful.”

Moore adds, “What they’re doing – rather than making us do a paint-by-numbers recreation of what they did in London – they’re creating stuff for us. Like, a lot of these dancers are so good that Arlene Phillips, who’s our choreographer, is doing brand new stuff for this group of dancers because she’s recognizing what their strengths are and using those. So it’s really delightful. They’ve got new harmonies that are being written for us, because the group sounds great, too. It’s kind of like a new show, in a way. It’s wonderful.”

Another thing that she likes about this show is the costumes.

“Some of them, what they’ve done is they’ve given us some of the costumes from London,” she says. “Like my Oz lady, I have a costume from London, but she’s got brand new sleeves and a brand new insert in the bodice, but my Oz lady is brand new. So they’re reusing things where they can, but a lot of the stuff has been made fresh. Dorothy’s shoes are being made for her, and the red slippers have Swarovski crystals on them – they’re going to look like a million bucks. It’s going to be great! The show’s going to look fantastic.”

From the nice end of the spectrum to the naughtiest, we got a chance to chat with the witch you love to hate, and hate to love, played to sultry perfection by Lisa Horner, star of Shaw and Stratford productions.

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“I was shocked by how wonderful it felt to be so awful, and how relaxing it was to be so terrible!” she confesses with a laugh. “I wasn’t actually sure how I was going to do it. I was quite nervous for the audition, ’cause it’s such an iconic character. I thought, well, do you do exactly what’s done before, how do you do it? And so, this time around I thought, just say it, just open your mouth and talk, and it was – I just felt an instant connection to somebody that awful.” She lets out another peal of laughter.

For Horner, bringing new life to her character was a combination of this newly discovered gleeful meanness, the creative direction of the show, which has her sing a brand new tune written just for this production – “It’s brand new, and it’s fabulous. It’s juicy, and angry, and happy, and it’s all of these wonderful things, so I can’t wait. It’s a joy” – and the costuming, most of all.

“The intention is for me to be very imposing. So when I first come out I’ve got about five-inch high boots – which I’m sure you can understand as a woman; it’s a bit like being on pointe. And I’ve got these fabulous boots in the second act, a little bit lower, because I have some dancing to do. But they’re to the knee, look a bit military but a bit sexy – I think we’re going kind of sexy-military!” she says with a laugh.

“It really helps having them on. With costuming, it makes a huge difference when you start putting on the stuff. It instantly enhances and answers questions for you, to know how you feel wearing this stuff. It’s great.”

Just one look at the myriad sketches taped to the wall containing beautiful and elaborate costume designs for each character, and it’s easy to see the truth in her words.

From one Wicked Witch to one very Good Witch, we had a chance to talk to Robin Evan Willis, who brings Glinda the Good Witch to the stage.

“It’s such a classic, it’s part of all – especially our age group and our parents – it’s part of our childhood culture, it’s rare for someone to get away without seeing that movie, right? Everyone recognizes it. So when there’s an opportunity to audition, everyone sort of perks their ears up.”

She says that for her role there’s a little bit of modernization taking place to make the character of Glinda credible to the sophisticated psyches of kids these days.

“The Glinda that they want, she’s sort of a motherly figure, but also quirky, and very contemporary, not like the sort of saccharine, fairy-princess, candy floss Glinda that was in the movie – and a younger Glinda. So they wanted that sort of relaxed, modern, kind of quirky edge.”

The centre of attention today is, of course, Danielle Wade, decked out in a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, and the iconic ruby slippers. The LaSalle, Ontario, native who bowled over viewers and producers alike with her Over the Rainbow win, recently completed her second year at the University of Windsor in acting. Of all the talent in this production, she might be the most untested – this is her first professional engagement, and her response to winning the role of Dorothy was, “I’ve never auditioned for anything before. I hope they all go like this!”

But it’s as obvious to the media gathered today as it was to viewers voting for her from home that she is Dorothy. And come December 20, when the performances of The Wizard of Oz officially begin, it will be time for her to reintroduce us all to a fresh new take on a legendary role.

When Judy Garland donned the red slippers way back at the dawn of technicolour movie-making (you know, the Stone Age), who would have guessed that she was setting a whirlwind that would spin through the decades. Be sure to check out its latest stop when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz comes tothe Mirvish stage beginning December 20, as we return to the yellow brick road with a show for a new age, with a brand new Dorothy.

The Wizard of Oz premieres on December 20 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Canon), 244 Victoria St, Toronto. For show tickets and information, check out the Mirvish website here.

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