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J. Shane Mercer, Published July 12 2009

Trollwood’s updates give 'The Wiz' a more current vibe

"The Wiz" was already a hip-and-repacked version of the classic “Wizard of Oz” tale, but Trollwood Performing Arts School is taking the musical to the next level of “now” for this year’s Mainstage musical.

The school’s take on the more soulful version of “Oz” opens at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at its new south Moorhead campus. And, like “The Wiz” was three decades ago, Trollwood’s take on the “Oz” tale has its own share of updates.

For instance, instead of following the old yellow-brick road, the crowd will find lead character Dorothy following a yellow GPS unit to the Emerald City. She wears the trendy wristbands in support of causes about which she is passionate and comes on stage on a motorized scooter. Aunt Em drives up in a minivan at one point. Wind turbines and renderings based on Google Earth images grace the stage. Dorothy’s heartless friend, the Tinman, is even made of recycled parts.

Stage Director Michael Walling says the contemporary technology in the show serves “just as a visual reference to current time. It doesn’t change the show at all; it just makes it a little more accessible.”

“The Wiz” was originally adapted and developed for an all-black cast and was quite successful. Its initial Broadway run earned seven Tony Awards in 1975, including best musical. A film version starring recently deceased pop icon Michael Jackson hit theaters in 1978 and grossed more than

$21 million.

TPAS’ production will be the school’s inaugural show at its new, eye-popping amphitheater, which is highlighted by its four 172-foot arches over the stage. TPAS still uses the old Trollwood Park in Fargo for some of its programs.

“The space before was beautiful, but this is mind-blowing,” says Ginny Glasser, 18, who plays Dorothy in the production.

Jack Mehler, the show’s scenery and lighting designer, referenced the arch shape that dominates the new amphitheater in creating the set for this year’s show. Large, movable (and, in the show, frequently moving) on-stage elements combine to create sine curves, which is the shape you’d have if you cut an arch in two and flipped one of the halves upside down.

Like that reference to the new site, the dance for “The Wiz” is also very current. Glasser and John Ford-Dunker, who plays the Scarecrow, liken it to the hip-hop-inspired moves you’d see on the MTV’s show “America’s Best Dance Crew,” a dance competition chockfull of street smart, uber-hip moves.

“It’s put into a little more modern sensibility,” Walling says. “Because the Land of Oz is nebulous, you have an opportunity to do whatever you want in terms of choreography. So I infused a little more modern, a little sort of progressive, hip edge to it.”

Glasser describes the dance movements as “very hip.”

“They’re very in the now,” she says.

But much in this production of “The Wiz” remains the same.

“We certainly didn’t change the story,” Walling says. “We didn’t change the characters. The same characters are singing the same songs.”

And the show certainly isn’t just about the here-and-now for Trollwood. The choice of “The Wiz” is an obvious throwback to the school’s first production, “The Wizard of Oz,” staged three decades ago at its old Fargo site.

And TPAS Executive Director Vicki Chepulis says the story “addresses issues of home and developing heart and courage and intelligence and being whole.”

And, as Chepulis sees it, that’s the business Trollwood is in: trying to give students experiences that will help them be whole.

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734