Eddie Ward was so excited about going to rehearsal last Monday that he practically flew up the stairs to the second floor studio at the Bangor Opera House.
Outside rehearsal, he’s a regular 11-year-old kid from Bangor. Once he’s in theater mode, though, he’s part of a group of 12 area kids aged 8 to 11 chosen to perform as Munchkins in the national touring production of “The Wizard of Oz,” set for a performance at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24, at University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts.
“I’m really, really, really, really excited,” said Ward. “Like, really excited. I can’t wait.”
This touring company for “Oz” asks venues in the cities it visits to find 12 local kids to play Munchkins in the show. The kids must be under the age of 12, under five feet tall and under 100 pounds, so they can fit into the costumes provided by the show. Adele Adkins, assistant director for the Collins Center, called the Penobscot Theatre Company and asked them to put the word out among their theater education students to cast the Munchkins.
“In bigger cities, they have auditions for the Munchkins. It’s a huge deal. It’s pretty competitive,” said Scott R.C. Levy, producing artistic director for PTC, who cast the show with his wife, PTC’s education and outreach director Joye Cook-Levy. “Here, we had it cast in just a few days on a first-come, first-served basis, though we did, sadly, have some other kids who wanted to be Munchkins. We had a pretty big response to it, overall.”
For the past six weeks, the 12 young actors have been rehearsing twice a week with Bangor choreographer and actress Christie Robinson, who is well-known to area theater fans as a regular performer with Penobscot Theatre Company, and most recently was seen in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Robinson was sent CDs, DVDs and choreography notes by the touring company, for all the music and dance cues her cast would need to learn.
“Everyone has to be extremely specific with movement and cues and every aspect of it, because it has to look the same at every performance,” said Robinson, a veteran of theater education at Penobscot Theatre and The Grand in Ellsworth. “From my standpoint, it’s very challenging, and I know it has been for the kids, as well. But I’m amazed at how beautifully the kids have handled it. It’s been a big undertaking for this age group, and they’ve done such a good job.”
They perform all the classic songs associated with Dorothy’s crash-landing in Munchkinland in Oz, including “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” Additionally, several of the young actors also will perform as Winkies, the blue-and-grey-clad castle guards at the Wicked Witch of the West’s fortress. You may remember them from the movie as the ones that chant “Oh wee oh, yo ho” while marching.
“A lot of these kids have been involved in the Next Generation Theater Camp, and in a lot of other theater camps in the area,” said Robinson. “But they are all new to me, and I’m genuinely impressed. They’re putting so much work into all of it.”
Despite their young age, the actors are well aware of the fact that this is kind of a big deal — they’re going to be onstage with professional actors in a professional show. The mixture of excitement and just a little bit of nervousness is palpable during rehearsals.
“My tummy is bubbling. I think I’m a little nervous,” said Rebekah Friedman, 10, of Bangor, who represents the Lollipop Guild in the show. “We have to be really professional. It’s kind of challenging. But it’s really fun, too.”
“My mom and dad are really proud of me,” said Ethan Schrader, 8, also of Bangor. “They are really excited.”
Beth Cottrell of Brewer, whose 9-year-old daughter, Ali, is in the show as both a Munchkin and a Winkie, said she has greatly enjoyed watching her child get excited about “Oz.”
“When she found out she was going to be a Winkie, she freaked out,” said Cottrell. “It’s just such a great opportunity for them all. They’re taking it very seriously, too.”
Lisa Montgomery’s son, Mattayoi, age 9, is involved in both theater and basketball, and though he loves sports, Mom says her son has caught the drama bug after “Oz.”
“He really thought at first that they were all going to go on tour with the company,” said Montgomery of Old Town. “He was all ready to pack his bags and travel with them. We had to explain to him that wasn’t how it was going to be, but that he’s still a working actor. He’s a pro now. It makes him feel really good.”
The “Oz” process has been beneficial for both the young actors and for Penobscot Theatre itself. Three of the Munchkins, Nate Manaker, Ali Cottrell and Brooke Jones, have all been cast in children’s roles in PTC’s upcoming spring production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“They’re taking it very seriously,” said Robinson. “But they’re all getting unbelievably excited.”
“The Wizard of Oz” will be performed at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24 at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. Tickets are $37-$62, and can be purchased by calling 800-622-TIXX.