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Off to see the wizard: WHS presenting 'Wizard of Oz'

“The Wizard of Oz” cast members (from left) Ari Lopez, D.J. Berger, Alex Purdy, Jessica Arnt, Orissa Nitibohn and Annie Lesnar pose in their costumes Friday during rehearsal at the Memorial Auditorium in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

WORTHINGTON — Dorothy Gale — and her little dog, too — will take the stage of Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center by storm this Thursday through Sunday for the Worthington High School (WHS) production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

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“We’re trying to be as true to what everyone knows from the movie as possible,” said Jon Loy, director.

“This is possibly the most ambitious musical we’ve mounted in recent years, with a dog, elementary students as Munchkins, a variety of set pieces, elaborate costumes — but the many different people assisting with the show’s elements are making it succeed.”

Loy’s cast of roughly 60 includes 16 third- and fourth-grade Munchkins from Prairie Elementary, as well as a living, breathing Toto, all of whom are accompanied by a 12-piece pit band (under the direction of Kerry Johnson).

“I love the message behind ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” said Johnson. “It’s such a great reminder that we are all stronger than we sometimes think we are, and the kids, as always, have been fantastic.”

Among those “kids” are WHS juniors Jessica Arnt (Dorothy), D.J. Berger (Scarecrow) and Orissa Nitibhon (Cowardly Lion), plus seniors Alex Purdy (Tin Man) and Ari Lopez (Wicked Witch of the West).

“Every one of the characters helps to tell an amazing story with a great life lesson, and I’m very proud to be part of that as the Tin Man,” said Purdy.

“The Tin Man learns from the Wizard that it’s not just about how much you love, but about how much you are loved by others, and that speaks volumes to me.”

Although she portrays the show’s villainess, Lopez embraces her Wicked Witch persona and is relishing her involvement in a third WHS musical.

“I hope my character is different than I normally am, but it’s nice to have the chance to act like someone else,” Lopez said. “It’s fun to cackle and have my trusty broomstick by my side at all times.”

Fellow WHS senior and chorus member Laura Wetering gets the credit for helping Lopez learn to ride an antique bicycle while wearing a long skirt, as Lopez does in the opening scenes as Miss Gulch.

“I debated whether or not to try out this year,” admitted Wetering, who was also a chorus member in last year’s production of “Hairspray,” “but Ari encouraged me to do it, and I’m glad I did.

“It’s fun to be in something like this that the community really cares about, because when the auditorium is full of people, all applauding, it’s very rewarding. You don’t get that same level of community feedback in every activity out there."

And while senior tech crew members Kia Veen and Karissa Balster similarly enjoy knowing the community supports shows like “The Wizard of Oz,” they are perfectly content observing the action from off-stage — where there is also plenty going on, both before and during performances.

“I feel more comfortable back here,” said Balster, who, with Veen, helped create the yellow brick road, among other set pieces and scenery. 

Added Veen, “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done backstage.”

“We know it wouldn’t look or be the same without our contributions,” said Balster.

That’s the kind of attitude set designer and scenic coordinator Judie Wendt Johnson (one of the several adult mentors Loy involves to guide students through the theatrical production process) is thrilled to witness.

“I’ve been designing sets with Mr. Loy for eight years, and I love working with the kids,” Johnson said. “It’s great to watch them grow and learn painting techniques on our many set pieces.

“Seeing the satisfaction they get from knowing they’ve helped put this all together and made this happen is really cool.”

Two other behind-the-scenes seniors are Loy’s student production assistants, Sydney Burns and Renae Van Der Linden.

“It keeps me busy,” said Burns, a second-year production assistant, of the hours she’s invested in the musical. “You make a lot of friends, and establish new connections and memories.”

“And the Munchkins are cute,” noted Van Der Linden.

The Munchkins’ primary handler and trainer is Debra Moe, a K-4 general music teacher at Prairie Elementary. Moe has corralled and prepared the 16 third- and fourth-grade Munchkins, and they are an integral part of at least one major scene in the show.

“They’ve met with me after school twice a week since December,” said Moe of her 8- to 10-year-old charges. “During the whole process, they’ve been focused and hardworking.

“The opportunity to be in a high school production is very motivating and exciting for all of them.”

Lillyana Newman, an 8-year-old third-grader featured as the Mayor of Munchkinland, seems to take naturally to the stage.

“I have a loud voice, and this is a good way to use it,” Newman said. “I like to sing, and when we auditioned they said, ‘She’s got a real loud voice — how about her?’”

Added Newman’s mother, Paris Langseth, “She seems so comfortable up there that we were a little surprised, but she is the oldest child in our family, and she is pretty outgoing.

“She heard about the auditions and really wanted to do it, and she’s loved it.”

Arnt, as Dorothy, has discovered several challenges in her lead role, including the fact that she appears in nearly every scene.

“Last year I was Penny in ‘Hairspray,’ which wasn’t as big of a role, but ‘Dorothy’ is a huge role, so it was kind of overwhelming at first, but it’s paying off,” said Arnt, adding that “Over the Rainbow” is a favorite of hers. “I’m getting a lot of experience from it.

“I like the dog a lot — she’s very cute — but it’s been really different because I was used to using my hands a lot, and now I have to carry Toto almost all the time,” said Arnt. 

“And walking in the ruby slippers is kind of weird, too.”

But if those slippers ultimately lead Dorothy — and the rest of the cast— safely home from Oz, why complain?

“There are many memorable performances in this year’s show, whether from cast, crew or show band members, and it’s a bigger, more demanding show than some have been,” Loy said.

“We hope people appreciate the efforts on the part of so many that make this possible.”

Worthington High School’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” takes place at Memorial Auditorium Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets (all reserved seats) are available at the box office beginning one hour before each show. District 518 activity passes are honored only at the Sunday performance.