A wicked Oz blows into town

The Vashon High School stage was alive last Friday with a kind of quietly focused activity. Some people were painting sets; others were nailing flats onto frames; still others were setting lights. Geri Peterson, an Island artist, was painting the yellow brick road.

With only a week to go before the show’s debut, one might have expected to find a more frenetic scene as about a dozen volunteers prepared for Drama Dock’s Friday night opening of “The Wizard of Oz.”

But it’s become the standard routine for the 30-year-old community theater, which usually doesn’t get its cast on stage until a week before opening because the VHS theater is so fully booked. In the world of theater, that’s not much time. For Drama Dock, it’s become a kind of pressure they cope with well.

Stage right, David Warren, whose daughter Anna-Rose is playing Dorothy, was fitting a wooden painted flat onto a rectangular frame.

The frame appeared, as part of a central stairway, in the recent high school production of “Cinderella.”

Recycling the set of the rags-to-riches show is part of what producer Shannon Flora calls her “green” approach to a show that, naturally, also features the color green in its set and lighting.

How else can there be an “Emerald City?”

Each of the stairway’s risers shows on its horizontal edge the name of one of the 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, with the first, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” published in 1900.

There have been many scripts, both stage and screen, for “The Wizard of Oz,” and most incorporate elements from some of the other 13 Oz books Baum wrote. But of course the most famous script is the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Billie Burke as Glinda and Frank Morgan as the Wizard.

Warren turned to a visitor who was scheduled to review the show and challenged him: “I dare you to write your review without referring to the movie,” he said.

It is possible to do that, of course, though many audience members will have Garland and company embossed on their brains anyway.

But, said stage designer Christopher Zinovitch, “They will let the movie go within the first five minutes.”

That’s because the Dock production and the particular script they’ve chosen doesn’t go for the glitz, he said. And it leaves out the red slippers, the flying monkeys and Toto.

Director Elizabeth Anthony said that she’s just as happy not to have the dog because it’s always a difficult trick to find one that can do what’s needed live, on stage.

Drama Dock’s former president Lisa Breen, who plays the Wicked Witch of the West, said that when the company was searching for a script, “Our biggest concern was competition with the movie. If we tried to do that, it would be a poor imitation. We’re doing good community theater rather than a poor movie imitation.”

At the same time, she added, many of the elements that have made the movie story beloved will be there, including the songs “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

The set itself, with its books for stairs, is meant to remind the audience that the musical they’re watching came first from a novel, not from a movie, said Zinovitch — a novel Baum wrote to comfort a child whose family was in emotional trouble.

“Everything looks as if a child did it,” Zinovitch added. “Theater is about storytelling. We start losing the fact of imagination when it’s replaced by the tendency in modern theater to go for spectacle.”

Zinovitch is director of theater and education at West Seattle’s ArtsWest. He ended up designing the set for Dock’s “Oz” after Flora, who knew him from her days on the board of ArtsWest, asked him one day if he knew anyone who could design a set for “Oz.” Zinovitch volunteered himself.

“It’s important for mid-size theaters to help community theaters,” Zinovitch said. “This is community-building, and it can encourage people to come to other theaters.”

Anthony said that she values Zinovitch’s role in the production.

“I need somebody to do the visualizing,” she said. “I’m not a visual person. When we did ‘Oliver’ a few years ago, it was my young niece who did the set design, making drawings on pieces of paper when I was visiting her in Austria.”

While Anthony was speaking, actor Gordon Millar, who’s playing the wizard, was painting a piece of set that would be his hiding place. The paint was black, an appropriate color for a wizard living in a green world.

Millar, who’s been performing in Drama Dock productions for 30 years, is happy to report that the wizard is the first role he’s had that’s not one of the supporting ensemble. “My character is named,” he said with pleasure.

The show continues what’s become a tradition for Drama Dock — musicals with large casts that include children as well as grown-up actors.

In recent years, the Dock has done “Annie,” “Sound of Music” and “Oliver,” all of which were well-received. As result, some say, the organization is becoming a true community theater, with many wanting to audition, kids showing up again and again for auditions and parents getting involved as well. It’s a far cry from the early days, noted Breen, when maybe six people would show for auditions.

Besides those already named, other principal actors include David Hackett as the Cowardly Lion, Phil Dunn as the Tin Man, Louis Mangione as the Scarecrow and Lauri Hennessey as the Sorceress of the North (Glinda in the movie version).