The 29th Annual American Stage in the Park gets the show on the yellow brick road with its production of “The Wiz,” the toe-tapping musical retelling of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The journey begins with a special preview night tonight, April 10 and runs until May 4.
The outdoor show is directed by Karla Hartley, the producing artistic director at Stageworks Theater in Tampa, who has helmed a variety of productions including comedies, straight dramas and big-scale musicals. Hartley also directed the American Stage in the Park production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” and averred that musicals tend to be more elaborate productions.
“Generally speaking, musicals are very, very big,” she said. “There is a lot of ground to cover and you need to make sure you have a talented team around you, which I do. It’s a great combination of people whom I know and people I’ve wanted to work with and some people I’ve never seen before. We’ve had a great time in the rehearsal room, exploring and figuring out how to tell this story, in what may be a new way to some people.”
Concerning the work itself, Hartley quipped that unless you live under a rock, you already know the story of “The Wizard of Oz” and added that more often than not, people are familiar with “The Wiz” musical whether it’s from the movie with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross or a stage production. So she wanted to find a way that lets people see it with “a little bit of a new eyeball.”
“Traditionally, ‘The Wiz’ is an all-African-American cast,” she explained, “but we made a conscious choice to make it a multi-cultural experience because we felt there was greater value in that for the times. And I did some gender cross-casting, because I thought it might be interesting for the Lion to be a woman rather than a man, as it traditionally is.”
Hartley admitted one of the biggest challenges was presenting the show with limited, albeit talented, cast members.
“This is a play that really should have about 20 – 22 people in it,” she admitted, “but every theater around the country is watching its dollars and cents, so we only had 12 people budgeted for the play. The six ensemble members are really working their tails off! I think each of them will play eight or 10 different things in the course of the evening.”
One of these actors is Sharon Scott who will don the costumes of three very different roles: Aunt Em, Evillene and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. But the Sarasota resident relishes the opportunity to play such diverse characters.
“I think it’s a great representation of these women—I like them!” she said excitedly. “I can do good and I can do bad, you know. Every role has its challenges. Something that looks easy is challenging. It’s how you present it.”
For a veteran actor-singer like Scott, playing multiple roles in a production is certainly a challenge she welcomes. She counts her work in “From The Mississippi Delta,” a play directed by Bob Devin Jones, as one of her favorite experiences in which she played various characters.
“It was the first time I got a chance to work with Bob Devin Jones and it was splendid!” she said. “It took me to places I had not gone before!”
To be sure, her beginnings in the performance arts were modest. She began singing at her grandfather’s church, she explained, so music has always been a part of her life.
“I didn’t think it was a career, I just thought it was a place of peace and joy,” she admitted. “But then I found this show that just seemed to fit me, auditioned for it and there it is.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin” was Scott’s first professional show, and the venerable performer would go on to appear in a number of acclaimed plays, including the American Stage productions of August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and “Gem of the Ocean.” She has even tried her hand at writing with “Mahalia, Just As I Am,” a musical show she performed at Studio@620 that tells the story of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The zeal Scott has for this particular production of “The Wiz” is apparent.
“I love the music, I love the story, I love the performers!” she exclaimed. “The Dorothy [Whitney Drake] is beautiful and so talented, our Tin Man [Chris Walker], he’s gorgeous, talented, the full package—and some of the people in the ensemble are just as strong as the principles. We have a really strong cast.”
Hartley echoed Scott’s enthusiasm for the quality of the acting, singing and spirited songs: “The music is great! The voices are just a knockout, and all of them can sing their faces off. Sara Del Beato, playing the Lion, and Whitney have this amazing duet that’s going to leave people breathless.”
She added that the production is a high-energy show with moments of absolute poignancy and brilliance.
“I think that it’s a lovely play and it’s a story we can all relate to,” Hartley said. “It’s really about finding the things you’re looking for already within yourself.”
American Stage in the Park is performed at Demens Landing Park, on the corner of 1st Avenue South and Bayshore Blvd S.E. in downtown St. Pete. For performance times, tickets and general info, contact American Stage at 727-823-7529 or visit www.americanstage.org.