Long before streaming services delivered digital entertainment on demand, a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” was a momentous event.
John Cherry, who directs a stage version of a musical based on the beloved film that the Blount County children’s theatrical troupe Primary Players brings to the Clayton Center for the Arts on Jan. 10, remembers those days well. Before Netflix, YouTube, DVRs and even VCRs, the only way to watch the classic movie, which first debuted 80 years ago, was to gather around the television.
“It would come on once a year, and that was a family event,” Cherry told The Daily Times recently. “I was probably 6 or 7, a kid in the late ‘60s, and when it came on network television, you watched it, because it wasn’t being run in theaters anymore. I remember that the flying monkeys were the scariest thing I’d ever seen. They were just terrifying, and our kids are doing a great job of capturing some of that creepiness. They’re not so creepy that kids in the audience will want to leave, but they’ll definitely make them feel that Dorothy is in danger. It adds drama to the middle section of the story.”
Ranked as the sixth-greatest film of all time by the American Film Institute, “The Wizard of Oz” is an iconic work of cinema. Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Judy Garland and based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” it tells the story of a Kansas farm girl (the aforementioned Dorothy) who is transported to the enchanted Land of Oz after a tornado strikes her home. With a pair of ruby slippers and accompanied by three companions — the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion — she faces off against the Wicked Witch of the West and seeks assistance from the title character to return home.
By 1939 cinematic standards, it was a stunning visual spectacle, and the musical version presented by Primary Players is a direct adaptation, Cherry said. However, fans of both cinema and theater shouldn’t expect a rote recitation of the film’s highlights.
“The musical we’re doing is based on the film, but one exciting thing about it is that there was a number cut from the film because they felt it was too long and interrupted the flow of the story,” he said. “It’s a song called ‘Jitterbug,’ where the Wicked Witch tries to get Dorothy to dance right out of the ruby slippers, and she makes Dorothy do the jitterbug. We’ve gotten Hilary Barrett (a dance instructor) from Artistic Dance Unlimited to be our choreographer, and she’s choreographed a fantastic jitterbug.
“It’s a swing dance number that really shows off the style the song is in, and it’s completely unique from the movie. I think the audience will be surprised by that, and that it will bring some excitement to the stage.”
While Cherry serves at the organization’s artistic director as well as the director of “The Wizard of Oz,” he emphasizes that the production is very much a team effort. Ken Hawkins, who retired a few years ago as the longtime choral director at Maryville High School, is the show’s music director, and his attention to detail is just as keen as Cherry’s.
“He’s done a great job of not just teaching music to the kids, but getting the sounds of the Munchkins in one scene, and then getting a more mature sound in Emerald City, from the same singers,” Cherry said. “Just hearing that high-pitched Munchkin sound and then, in the very next song, hearing them sing in these very adult-sounding voices that sound more mature and more like a chorus, is incredible. The kids really connect with Ken and his energy, and he has a great way of getting young people to really work on the music.”
From the beginning, Primary Players has sought to bring out the inner thespians in its young charges rather than making them on-stage placeholders in familiar roles. The company was established by Nikki Andrews in 2005, and Cherry — who first moved to Blount County as the son of a U.S. Air Force officer and studied acting under Tom Jones, the Maryville College professor of summer theater productions, before joining the Air Force himself — was at that first meeting.
His daughter, Alex, was 8 at the time, and when organizers learned of Cherry’s background in theater (he earned his degree at the University of Tennessee in it before spending 21 years in the Air Force, starting as a nuclear weapons officer and finishing as a training and recruitment officer), they asked him to get involved in directing. That meeting took place the same month Cherry retired as a lieutenant colonel, and back home in East Tennessee, he threw himself back into drama. He’s worked with a number of arts organizations over the years as an actor, including Blount County’s own Foothills Community Players, but working with Primary Players allows him to nurture his love of mentorship for budding actors and actresses, he added.
Take his daughter, for example: She recently accepted a position in the physical production division for Disney Studios in Hollywood, where she’ll work as a full-time production assistant as a way to get her foot in the door.
“One of the biggest compliments we get is when our kids go on to college or other theater work, and we hear back that they’re ahead of everyone else in their group,” he said. “One of our kids aged out last year and went to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. She’s been there a year and a half now as a theater major, and her professors rave about how prepared she was — not just as an actor, but as a stage manager or a member of the stage crew, and she’s soon going to try her hand at directing.”
One of the unique things about Primary Players is that each child is allowed and encouraged to pursue the craft of theater with as much passion as they would like. While they all are expected to meet certain expectations, for some, it’s merely a hobby. For others, it’s the springboard to a lifelong love and even a career. The job of the company’s adult stewards is to nudge them in the direction they want to go, while meeting the standards of quality theater that make for exciting and dramatic public performances.
“One of the key things I always look for is physicality — can they portray the role physically, not in way they look, but in the way they move on the stage?” Cherry said. “We wanted to do ‘The Wizard of Oz’ because it’s the 80th anniversary of the film, but also because we knew we had a crop of kids who could really bring those key characters to life. Grace Ballard is our Wicked Witch of the West, and this is her ninth or 10th show with us. She’s been just a fantastic cast member who has literally paid her dues with whatever we’ve asked her to do, and she absolutely brought it to the audition.
“For the role of Dorothy, we’ve double cast it just because it was so difficult to choose between Kylie McMurray and Ashley Blair. Ashley has been with us for years and has had a couple of lead roles, and Kylie played the role of Lucy in our production of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’ And our actors playing the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, all three of them are fantastic, and they do a great job of capturing some of the elements you know but at the same time, creating new characters themselves.”
For Cherry, the work comes not just in coaxing top-notch performances from his young charges, but in making decisions that overcome some of the obstacles of translation. The ruby slippers will sparkle, but the actresses playing Dorothy also will stand on boxes and platforms when possible to make them visible from the lower seats of the Clayton Center’s Nutt Theatre. Toto starts out, Cherry added, as an actress camouflaged in all black operating a dog puppet to that same actress in a dog costume, playing a human-sized version of Toto once Dorothy lands in Oz. Pam Jackson and Denise Weston, Cherry added, have as big of a role as any of the actors on stage thanks to their work on the costumes, and the rest of the crew has a hand in making “The Wizard of Oz” a magical experience.
“Another element people will recognize from the film — and it was a technical challenge for us to capture this — is that the first part of the film is in black and white, or almost this sepia tone, and we’ve tried to capture that with our set and costumes and our lighting in the opening scene,” he said. “Then, when Dorothy goes to Munchkinland and Oz, everything bursts with color, but at the end of the musical, we go back to that sepia.”
From the pacing to the acting to the attention to detail, the entire Primary Players family has worked overtime to get the production ready for its Jan. 10 launch. In fact, Cherry added, by the time the company broke for the holidays on Dec. 16, the musical was ready for a live audience. Over the next week, they’ll fine tune last-minute details, brush up on dialogue and generally ensure that audience members quickly forget that they’re watching children on stage.
“It’s kind of a compliment when we get that reaction,” he said. “The last big musical we did — ‘Elf,’ last Christmas — I had several friends that I worked with in Knoxville come to see the show, and a couple of them said halfway through the show, ‘I forgot I was watching kids.’ And that’s a high compliment — not necessarily for what we do, but to the kids.
“They really embrace the instruction we give them, and as they continue to stay in character, they become those characters and give a professional-level performance. Even though they’re all volunteers, and we’re all volunteers, doing it for the love of the art, our primary objective is to teach kids about all of the elements of theater, so that way if they move on to something else, the company they go to is going to get an actor that’s ready.”Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at email@example.com.