Off to see a different ‘Wizard of Oz’

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First Posted: 3/25/2014

Tornado carries girl away to strange place. Girl finds friends to travel yellow road with. Girl and friends encounter scary witch, but all ends happily (well, depending on who you talk to).

It’s a story we all know very well, the one of “The Wizard of Oz,” and Theatre at the Grove in Nuangola is telling it once again, though this time many of the actors are applying unique viewpoints towards their characters and the play itself, thanks in part to the copious amount of Wizard-like materials they now have to look to.

L. Frank Baum set forth the original story in his 1899 novel, which was then taken to the big screen in 1939 by Warner Brothers. Another novel came out in 1995 titled “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire, which expounded upon the green witch herself and even named her as Elphaba. It was the first in “The Wicked Years” series, which was followed by “Son of a Witch,” “A Lion Among Men,” and “Out of Oz.”

Popularity soared again for the realm that’s the home of Emerald City when “Wicked” went Broadway in 2003, then most recently when Disney released the James Franco-led “Oz The Great and Powerful,” which focused on the Wizard himself. So just how do the Nuangola players field all this backstory and turn it into something of their own?

“I really like ‘Wicked’ because Margaret Hamilton’s [1939 film version] Wicked Witch was just evil right out of the gate,” Lisa Zurek, who plays the ill-fated witch, said. “She doesn’t have many layers. With ‘Wicked,’ it exposed Elphaba, how she became that way. I didn’t want her to just be evil; I wanted to have some layers to my witch.”

Zurek does have empathy for the Witch and hopes other people might too when given a chance to see her true colors.

“I think you should know both sides of a story before passing any judgment. I’m not saying scaring children is a good thing,” Zurek said with a laugh. “Her tactics are a bit out there, but she has, at least my witch, well, she tries to make you laugh a little bit.”

In terms of colors, Zurek also looked to a form of “Wicked” for inspiration in creating the Witch’s signature hue.

“I wanted her to look more natural, as natural as green skin can look,” she said. “I looked up on YouTube how they did the ‘Wicked’ makeup for Idina Menzel, and it’s just regular foundation mixed with green eye shadow.”

Paul Winarski, who portrays the Wizard of Oz, went much further back for inspiration.

“Going back to the original L. Frank Baum novels, the Wizard is really a fascinating character,” Winarski said. “Those novels have influenced me. And, you know, I always found it interesting that, coincidentally, the Wizard and Dorothy both happen to be from Kansas, two generations apart.”

No matter what version of the “Wizard of Oz” one may look to, the same story lies beneath, one that speaks to people universally.

“It has a little child facing her fears, fears we’ve all had,” Zurek said. “Even though it centers on the witch, it also deals with being taken from your home, being placed somewhere completely out of your comfort zone, and that can apply to anyone at any time, just growing up and maturing. You go through that process and can end up being a better person, learning to appreciate what you have through experience. I think it’s great because I watched it as a little girl and said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a fantasy with these flying monkeys,’ and such, but now I appreciate it even more as an adult and now it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, I can relate to this character more.’”

“I think everyone can find something in there that they can connect to,” Winarski said. “Baum really created this fantastic world where people are searching for something within themselves, whether it’s the Tin Man’s search for a heart or the Wizard just trying to fit in with the situation he’s been thrust into. There are so many little aspects of our personalities that we see in these characters.

“Baum’s intent was to create for America the type of fairytale and folklore that Europe had had for centuries. He sought out to make something iconically American that American audiences can identify with, and he certainly did just that.”