The Spokane Civic Theatre is kicking off its 75th season with The Wizard of Oz. More than just an enduring audience favorite, the main-stage musical is also a tribute to the theater’s long history. The last time it was produced by the Civic was in 1997, which happened to be the theater’s 50th anniversary season.
Though she’s participated in countless Civic shows over the years, Kathie Doyle-Lipe remembers that earlier production well. After all, she directed and choreographed it. And the fact that she’s back in the director’s chair for this new production of The Wizard of Oz also speaks to the devotion of Doyle-Lipe and all the other individuals like her who’ve sustained the Civic’s creative output for decades.
“I think the heart and soul of The Wizard of Oz is timeless. It’s such a classic,” she says.
“I feel like I know this story better than I did last time, but in a way I also feel like that gives me higher expectations for what I want to do and what I want it to look like,” she continues. “And so many things are different. Obviously, the cast is totally different, which brings a whole new take on it. Our production values are way different today than they were 25 years ago.”
To better meet her heightened expectations and the elevated theatrical standards, Doyle-Lipe and the cast started rehearsals in mid-July. With the help of scenic designer Denny Pham, they’re upping the ante further with “video elements,” simulated pyrotechnics, an upgraded lighting system and state-of-the-art flying rigs installed by industry pros Flying by Foy.
In addition to working closely with Henry McNulty, who has raised the performance bar during his time as the Civic’s music director, Doyle-Lipe has also been relying on assistant choreographer Adeline Kraft to help out with the show’s huge song-and-dance numbers.
“It’s still a lot of the choreography I did 25 years ago,” says Doyle-Lipe. “But she’s giving it some new twists and some younger energy.”
There’s also an infusion of younger energy in the form of the lead, Nicole Ostlie — although, like her director, the 17-year-old actor is no stranger to Oz. Ostlie played Dorothy in a Christian Youth Theater (CYT) Spokane production just this past winter.
“A lot of it is similar, but a big chunk of it is different too,” Ostlie says. “This is only my second time working with adults in a show, and so it’s been a huge learning experience.”
Fortunately, that learning experience hasn’t needed to include the basics of canine interaction. Ostlie has two pet dogs herself, and she worked with a live dog on the earlier CYT production. Retired trainer Val Hughes, who helped train the Civic’s last Toto, is also advising on this production in a casual capacity. Ostlie is putting that advice into practice, aided by a constant pocketful of treats.
After reflecting on different directions she could take her character, Ostlie decided to channel Judy Garland’s Dorothy in the 1939 film. Part of that has to do with satisfying audience expectations, but there’s also the sense that Garland’s iconic portrayal is a hard one to top.
“I personally try really hard to make it as [close to] the movie as possible. I don’t want to say that I want everything to be just like her, but I do try to have her style of voice and tone,” she says.
“The other characters in our cast,” Ostlie says — and here she’s referring to “J. Crew,” the core trio of Jeremy Trigsted, Jameson Elton and Jonah Taylor as the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman, respectively — “each brings their own different personalities to their role. I think they have a little bit more freedom in terms of interpreting their lines, and they all do a good job of that. It’s really cool to watch.”
Although Garland’s on-screen portrayal is one of the reasons why the film version of The Wizard of Oz is so well known, a musical stage version was actually one of the first popular adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel. It predates Victor Fleming’s movie by more than three decades. This particular version of the musical that the Civic is staging was adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987.
Doyle-Lipe says that this staging holds some special incentives for fans of the movie, such as an elaborate jitterbug scene that was cut from the beloved film. But most of all, she wants audiences to see The Wizard of Oz as a reason to commemorate the longevity and the legacy of the Civic.
“We survived the last couple of years. We’re trying to survive the construction of a new stadium in our backyard,” she says. “So we’re all going to be celebrating our 75th year, and we’re hoping that audiences will come and celebrate with us.”
Article by E.J. Iannelli
Photo by Chiana McInelly