The Witch (Kira Lace Hawkins, center) confronts Dorothy (Ashlyn Maddox, right) as Glinda (Maggie Kuntz, left) looks on in the Wagon Wheel Professional Theatre’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
The Witch (Kira Lace Hawkins, center) confronts Dorothy (Ashlyn Maddox, right) as Glinda (Maggie Kuntz, left) looks on in the Wagon Wheel Professional Theatre’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
After a long delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wagon Wheel Theatre is finally getting to take audiences “Over the Rainbow” to see “The Wizard of Oz,” and the cast hopes the audiences will be as excited to see the live performance of the musical as they are to give it.

For the 2021 production, Ashlyn Maddox is Dorothy, Kuppi Jessop is Hank/Scarecrow, Mark Mitrano is Hickory/Tinman and Michael Pacholski is Zeke/Lion. This is Pacholski’s fourth summer season, Mitrano’s and Maddox’s second and Jessop’s first at the Wagon Wheel. For all four of the actors, they haven’t performed in a live show before an audience since the pandemic hit in early 2020.

During a group interview Tuesday, Maddox said taking on the role of Dorothy is a big change from her roles before the pandemic at the Wagon Wheel. “I’m coming back after a year of not doing this, but also my whole first experience here was either ensemble or supporting characters, and now all of a sudden, I don’t leave the stage! A very different Wagon Wheel experience for sure.”

Right before the pandemic, Pacholski said he did a production of “Matilda” at the Riverbank Theatre in Michigan, then he did a virtual production of “The Tempest,” but “it’s not the same.” Tuesday night was a soft opening for the “Wizard” production “and we finally have an audience so the energy is going to be a factor again,” he said.

Mitrano, 21, said he did a couple of filmed musicals/movies at school – University of Michigan – as well as a couple radio plays. “But this is my first live performance in a year. It’s a change. It’s so exciting to have people actually in the room with us. We’ve been running the show a lot because we have the privilege of time with this production, it being the first of the season, but we’ve been waiting and waiting for people to get their butts in the seats,” he said, noting they were excited to see the audience’s response to “The Wizard of Oz” at Tuesday night’s soft opening.

The show, especially the classic film starring Judy Garland, and characters are iconic, Maddox, 23, realizes. “We all know the film. And two, Judy Garland: How do you step into a role that she’s done? But I think with our production, we have leaned into the question: What is this place? Is it a dream? Is it reality, this experience that she goes through? And so, using our props and costumes, and everything magical about the show, makes you ask, did this really happen to her? And we kind of get to bring that twist to it. So, we’re stepping into something that’s iconic, but hopefully we’ve been able to bring our own stuff to it,” she said.

Pacholski said, “Growing up with the movie, so many iconic moments and things that, I think we’re all doing a good job of doing the research and going back to that, but also as she said, we have to bring ourselves to the character. We can’t just be an impersonation.”

“But the lines we all know and love, they’re all in there. Those moments are still there, the ones that people look for,” Maddox said.

“I think what is so special about the musical itself is, when we’re all in the space together and experiencing the story together as one seamless thing, instead of cut to cut as when you’re experiencing it on the big screen, is that the connections between the farm hands, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and who they are in Oz, are much easier to see and relate to,” Mitrano said.

One thing all four actors have in common is that this is their first production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I’m very excited about it,” said Jessop. “I grew up on ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I grew up watching those movies. I actually grew up in Thailand so we didn’t have a big musical theater community, so the shows weren’t happening. But I’ve always wanted to play one of the roles. I actually was in a production of ‘The Wiz’ back when I was in Thailand and I played the Tinman. That was a fun, little experience. You know, there’s a lot of parallels obviously from that story to this story. It’s basically the same fairy tale.”

As he grew up, Jessop grew to be 6 foot, 2 inches tall. He never thought anyone would give him the opportunity “to play such a lanky, physical type of role because they usually give those sort of roles to people who are not as lanky and tall. But (Wagon Wheel Artistic Director) Scott (Michaels) gave me that call and I was like, ‘Really? Are you sure?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ So here we are, just making big choices. It’s awesome.”

Jessop said he’s been going through a journey of finding out who the Scarecrow is and he’s been discovering that he connects to his character in a way. “Because there is this curiosity with him that he’s currently making discoveries and I really related to that. First, when I moved to America for college that I was making all these discoveries about this culture, these people that I had no idea what they were about and how they function within society and stuff like that. I found lots of parallels with Scarecrow with my own experiences.”

While the show has the songs everyone knows, like “Over the Rainbow” and “Yellow Brick Road,” Maddox’s favorite number was edited out of the 1939 Judy Garland film.

“The one I was looking forward to, even coming here, is ‘Jitterbug,’ which, some people have different feelings about. It was actually in the movie. They recorded it. You can find old film of them doing the ‘Jitterbug’ for the MGM film. And there’s a line that the Witch has that’s like, ‘I’m going to send this little insect to tire them out,’ in the movie, and everyone was like, ‘What is that line there for?’ Until we figure out that the ‘Jitterbug’ was cut,” she said. “So, I’m excited that’s in the plot and I think it’s one of our really fun numbers to do.”

Pacholski said the number requires “so much energy” and he has had a blast with it. It’s also something the audience may not expect, he said.

When audiences go see the Wagon Wheel production of “The Wizard of Oz,” Maddox said, “I hope that they get as much joy out of it as we have coming back to it. It’s sometimes like an awkward space to step back into. Like the first day we’re on our feet and the first day we have music rehearsals again. It’s like it’s been a minute. So I hope they feel as comfortable coming back to the live space and I just hope it’s everything they want. I hope we deliver and we will.”

Pacholski said the theater staff has taken every possible precaution to prevent the spread of COVID and to keep everyone safe as well.

“I’m excited to have the energy back in the theater,” he said. “We’ve been rehearsing for each other and you can only see a show so many times before the jokes … become the pattern. You need that extra oomph from the audience to have the jokes and to feel it, and that’s what I’m most excited for is just to bring that joy, the magic of theater back.”

Mitrano said after this past year, he felt like it had been five years. He said he hopes this story brings everyone back in time together and grabs the youthful spirit out of the audience.

Jessop said to the other actors, “I will say, as a third party, just me as the Scarecrow watching you guys play, I’m like, ‘They are bringing it!’ And I am so, so excited to share this with everyone because I know it’s wonderful and it will take people on a journey and I know it will impact people. I can’t wait for people to see this because it’s really a magical story and it will be forever timeless and I’m so lucky to be able to do it with all of you guys because you all are so talented and you make me a better actor.”

Show times are 7 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. June 8 & 9; 2 and 8 p.m. June 10; 8 p.m. June 11; and 7 p.m. June 12. Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors 60 and older; $20 for students 13 to college; $15 for children 12 and under; and $30 each for groups of 15 or more. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online at wagonwheelcenter.org.