A massive troupe of young people and grownups gathered in Los Altos this summer to stage the latest iteration of a childhood staple stretching back five generations – and they’ve broken precedent to do it.
Los Altos Youth Theatre and Los Altos Stage Company partnered to stage the “The Wizard of the Oz” at Bus Barn Theater. Although they’ve shared the same performance space for nearly two decades, this is the first time the companies have collaborated. The show had its opening gala last weekend and runs through Aug. 3.
Nearly 40 local young people fill out the production, joined by Daniel P. Wilson (as Wizard, Professor), Sheila Townsend (Glinda) and Kimberly Kaye (Wicked Witch). Ian Leonard directs, with vocal direction from Townsend and choreography by Jillian Toby Cummings.
“We’d been talking about doing a co-production for the last few years. Both Ian and I grew up in youth theater,” Wilson said. “We started chatting with (Los Altos Youth Theatre Artistic Director) Trish Files about what we might do together.”
They settled on “Wizard” after batting around ideas ranging from “Into the Woods” to “The Sound of Music” and “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka.” The key qualification: a mix of roles tailored for a fusion young/adult cast.
“We knew from the get-go that we wanted three or four teaching artists who would teach workshops,” Wilson said. “Since this was our first go-round, we kept it simple, with acting, movement and vocal workshops.”
The mixed troupe is using an adaption of “Wizard” that the Royal Shakespeare Company created in the 1980s.
“If you’re like so many families for whom ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is one of those movies that have required showings, you can come to this and get all the songs,” Leonard said.
(Insider’s tip: Listen for “The Jitterbug,” a song cut from the 1939 film that has lived on in leaks from the cutting-room floor.)
Leonard added, “All those moments, like the switch from Kansas to Oz or the first time you hear music heralding the Wicked Witch – instead of being caught on a screen, it’s living and breathing in front of your person.”
From their stage at Bus Barn Theater in Los Altos’ Hillview Community Center, the troupe uses projection on an arch to capture the magical elements of the story, the tornado and the Wizard’s enormous, floating face.
“It helps us further the storytelling, but also gives people used to watching it on the screen a nostalgic flashback,” Leonard said.
Sharing the stage
The adults who play the Wizard and the two witches hung back during early rehearsals, letting the young actors develop their own tone and group dynamic. After meeting in the workshops, the two age groups took to the stage as equals.
“You go from being an instructor to thinking. ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just like you – I don’t know my lines!” Leonard said. “And the students seem to think, ‘Now that the older people are here, I really need to step up my game.’ You can watch their preparation and enthusiasm go up a notch.”
The young cast doubles as stagehands, revolving the stage from Kansas to Oz and back.
“The magic of the storytelling is that it’s all happening with you guys,” Leonard challenged cast members as they took final pointers on set moves.
During final run-throughs last week, knots of costumed actors scattered around the theater and surrounding green spaces, practicing harmonies and choreography. Dana Levy, one of the Tin Men in this year’s production (two casts of young people trade off) rehearsed with her backup-dancer trees against the setting sun out on the soccer field.
“He wants a heart – to be able to love things and have compassion for people,” the Los Altos resident said. “He becomes best friends with Dorothy, Scarecrow and Lion, and realizes that he has had a heart all along – and becomes a better person for it.”
Levy said working with adult actors was particularly fun because she can play off what they bring to the stage, benefiting from talent that boosts all players.
“They give you a lot more than I would be able to, just because they have more experience,” she said of the mixed cast.
Performances are scheduled 7:30 p.m. today and Thursdays through Saturdays (no show July 24) and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Tickets are $15 youth/seniors, $20 adults.
For tickets and more information, call 941-0551 or visit losaltosstage.org.