A Marconi school’s students lent their talents to a national tour’s rendition of a timeless tale.
As actress Kerri McNeil, portraying homesick teenager Dorothy Gale, prepared for an afternoon journey along the yellow brick road, she had 10 eager onstage backers.
Playing merry munchkins, students from the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, 2600 S. Broad St., sang their support for Gale’s quest to return to Kansas Dec. 28 in the Merriam Theater’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Their performance allowed their Marconi institution to continue its 11-year history of assisting shows and gave the youngsters their initial theatrical exposure to the rewards of diligence and enthusiasm.
An energized crowd teeming with giddy children and equally thrilled adults filled the aisles for the penultimate performance of the Oz Theatre Co. LLC’s two-day stay, flocking to see the area’s first rendition of the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s adaptation of author L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” since 2008. After a tornado transported Gale and her trusty terrier, Toto, from the Midwest to the Land of Oz, the attendees increased their perkiness as they readied for the munchkins’ levity.
“If there are children in a professional show in Philadelphia, they’re our children,” Dr. Gail Avicolli, the charter’s principal, said via a release of her site’s annals, which include roles in “The Lion King” and “Scrooge.”
New York City’s Clemmons/Dewing Casting contacted Avicolli in November, with her pupils as the lone auditioning hopefuls. To preserve literary and cinematic traditions for diminutive frames, the agency sought figures less than five feet and weighing less than 100 pounds. Avicolli produced 20 bodies, with half earning the nod to greet Gale after her home lands on the Wicked Witch of the East. In-school singing tutelage and post-school dancing lessons prepped the thespians for their encounter with the affable adolescent.
“When I learned I would be in the show, I took it seriously but soon I freaked out, in a good way,” fourth-grader Rebecca Corosanite said post-performance of her uncontainable joy. “This has really been fun.”
A Packer Park resident, Rebecca joined with her peers — eight girls and one boy — in surrounding McNeill, who has played Gale since the national tour began Sept. 27 in Oklahoma. Baum crafted Munchkin County as Oz’s Eastern region, so the tiny presences showed eastern hospitality by bellowing “Munchkin Land,” an appreciative tune in which she receives thanks for eliminating the witch “so neatly.”
A rollicking “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” boosted the spectators’ adrenaline, as the vibrantly dressed munchkins flawlessly executed their choreography. Two trios delighted the audience with “The Lullaby League” and “The Lollypop Guild” before sending Gale off in pursuit of the titular character. The remainder of the first act let the local learners watch Gale, Toto and the duo’s triumvirate of likewise desirous friends ward off the schemes of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Intermission came after the gang made its way through the poppy field and advanced to the edges of the Emerald City. Halfway finished their afternoon responsibilities, the South Philadelphia representatives prepared for their secondary roles as the winkies.
The day’s program estimated that Baum’s tale has entertained global audiences totaling more than one billion people. Many renditions have offered the lesson that the lure of home will always win no matter the joy in one’s adventures, but the 1939 film version has proven the most enthralling. Last week’s quartet of performances retained Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s songs and gave the children, both costumed and non-adorned, opportunities to join the cast members in voicing meritorious melodies.
“I’ve seen every version,” fifth-grader Madison Matteo said of her familiarity with Baum’s creation, one of 14 in the Oz collection.
The Packer Park resident expressed gratitude for the chance to entertain other children, especially considering that she, Rebecca and sixth-graders Amanda Jacobson and Christina Mattioli place the film version with Judy Garland as the wayward Kansas youth in their top-five lists of favorite movies. Madison takes dancing classes at Estilo Dance Company, 714 Reed St., so she seemed a perfect fit for pulling off the thumping “March of the Winkies,” complete with the infectious “Oh we oh, yo ho” chant.
The PPACS bunch showed its moves in the second act, as the Wicked Witch of the West waged ways to impede Gale and gain possession of the ruby slippers bestowed upon the girl by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Her school helped Center City’s Academy of Music four years ago to stage the classic story of good versus evil and travel versus domesticity, so Madison wanted her and the others to prolong the piece’s history as a jewel for all ages.
“We seemed overwhelmed at first, but excitement took over,” Amanda, of the 1800 block of Shunk Street, said,
Each PPACS student chooses an academic concentration following fifth grade, so she is enjoying her first year as a vocal major. The second half yielded few occasions for her to prove her pipes, but she reveled in each second.
“The hard work really pays off when we take our bows and hear the applause,” she said.
Amanda participated in the rousing climax during which Gale accidentally melts her adversary after the latter’s attempt to burn the Scarecrow. The patrons applauded the special effects that enabled the evil figure to dissipate, and the area actors belted out a reprise of “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” before yielding to their co-stars for the final three scenes, including Gale’s reunion with the farmhands, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry.
“We were so excited to learn about the roles,” Christina said of their mid-November selection, “and our confidence grew with each rehearsal.”
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