Off to see the Wizard

Theatre Arts newest production of Frank L. Baum’s classic, ‘Oz,’ is a community-wide endeavor

Wizard of Oz 2017

The timeless musical, Wizard of Oz, runs at UND’s Burtness Theatre, starting at 7:30 p.m., from Nov. 9-11 and 16-18, with special guest appearances and a splash of community and campus collaborations. Image courtesy of UND Theatre Arts.

Though it’s her first time directing a production at UND, Stephanie Murry is no stranger to “The Wizard of Oz”, or directing, as someone who’s crafted her career on stage.

“This is my sixth production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ being involved in some capacity,” said Murry, an assistant professor in the department of theatre arts. “It’s one of those shows you’re going to encounter once, if not many times when you’re involved in the theater.”

The timeless musical runs at UND’s Burtness Theatre, starting at tonight at 7:30 p.m., through Nov. 11 and then again Nov. 16-18, with special guest appearances and a splash of community and campus collaborations.

Murry directed two productions while earning her master’s degree in acting. She’s found plenty of directing experience since, including four renditions of “Oz” with South Korean English teachers. Locally, she acts as Producing Artistic Director of North Dakota Shakespeare and directed “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Empire Arts Center this past March.

Approaching the story

Wizard of Oz 2017

UND Theatre Arts ‘Wizard of Oz’ show poster.

Leasing a property such as “The Wizard of Oz” has its creative boundaries, though it hasn’t prevented a unique approach in bringing the play— and its music— to the entire UND campus.

Anne Christopherson, UND associate professor of music and musical director for the production, worked with technical director, Loren Liepold, and Dave Sundine, of UND Facilities Management, to have the memorable musical selections from the show played on the carillon bells high atop Twamley Hall, UND’s main administrative building. Pieces such as “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” have been playing at noon this week, leading up to today’s premiere.

“In the piano lab [of the Hughes Fine Arts Center] we have pianos with USB ports,” Christopherson explained. “I record it as a MIDI file, put it on a flash drive and send it to (Liepold). He changes the instrumentation to bell sounds for the carillon.”

Murry says a unique aspect of the UND production is its contemporary setting. That said, Murry added, the Royal Shakespeare Company version of the play UND is using follows the film almost verbatim.

“We’ve taken a few liberties in updating it a bit [from the 1930s],” she said. “I don’t know if I want to give too much away, but we have our own interpretation of certain worlds that the characters visit.”

“Whether or not they’ve seen the film or a theater production of it, Dorothy’s story will resonate with them,” Christopherson said.

Making magic

In a move Murry characterized as out of the norm, Theatre Arts collaborated across campus with the UND Television Center to bring a looming effect to life.

“For this show, you need a talking head. It’s a necessity,” Murry laughed, describing their need for the wizard’s grand illusion seen in the film.

After talking with her own team, she contacted the Television Center, which jumped at the chance to help out.

“We had the actor come to the studio, where we cut a hole in a large, blue construction paper backdrop for him to put his face through,” said Peter Monsrud, a video producer at the Television Center. “We recorded each scene multiple times. Then in editing, we chroma keyed out the blue and replaced it with green. Each frame was edited to make it look as smooth as possible.

“The process took a while to get to where it ended up. But I think it was all worth it because it turned out really well. I’m excited to see the show now.”

Paging the mayor (and his munchkins)

After the chair of her department, Jeff Weatherly, asked if there would be any celebrity cameos, Murry thought about what they could cast and rehearse in a short amount of time.

“Then I thought, well, the Mayor of Munchkinland has a little bit of stage time and minimal dialogue,” Murry said. “It’s also a nice feature that people remember. So I thought, how fun would it be if the mayor played the mayor!”

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown was receptive and excited about the role, but could only do the first weekend of shows. Thinking it would be fun to have two mayors, Murry started asking around about who else they could recruit for the cameo. Several people suggested retired, longtime WDAZ-TV anchorman Terry Dullum. He readily accepted, saying it was a great idea.

“Terry’s done shows with the Firehall Theater, so he’s had some experience,” Christopherson said.

Murry followed, saying, “He’s a theatrical personality, naturally.”

But what’s a mayor without his munchkins? The theatre arts department sent casting calls to elementary and middle schools around the community in search of youngsters looking to shine.

“Having children in the production gives them an opportunity to express themselves, to build their confidence and help them learn a lot about team work,” Christopherson said. “We’re lucky in Grand Forks because our youth are very musically inclined. It’s a communal theater experience that lifts everybody up.”

Murry said her experience with directing children’s theater made it less daunting to bring younger actors on board. Sixteen of them will take the stage with Mayor Brown and Terry Dullum during the show’s run.

“We’re trying to remind people that we have a thriving theater program,” said Murry, about the community outreach. “We want people to know that there’s neat things going on around campus all the time.”