'Wizard of Oz' design team overcomes challenges to satisfy fans of the movie - Omaha.com
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Scenic artist Michelle Bonker painted backdrops including the Wicked Witch's castle, the Emerald City skyline, a cornfield and, of course, Munchkinland.(KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Jim Othuse, the Playhouse’s scenic designer, with the miniature farmhouse used in a five-minute video segment of a tornado tumbling Dorothy’s home.
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Costume designer Georgiann Regan says sewing often took a back seat to crafting costumes, using materials never before seen at the Playhouse.
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Michelle Bonker, the Playhouse’s scenic artist, has been painting sets for “The Wizard of Oz” for seven weeks. Her paint — including more than 20 shades of green — was color-coordinated with the costumes.(KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD)


'Wizard of Oz' design team overcomes challenges to satisfy fans of the movie
By Bob Fischbach

Click here to view a Wizard of Oz photo showcase.


Probably no movie is more familiar and beloved to a wider age range than MGM's “The Wizard of Oz.” Millions have watched the 1939 best-picture Oscar nominee over and over on television.

That meant an extra challenge for the design team at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where the musical based on L. Frank Baum's classic book opens Friday for a monthlong run.

“The movie is iconic, but we're all bringing our own piece of the pie to it,” director Susan Baer Collins said of her cast and crew.

The spoken lines are straight out of the movie, she said. But while she and her crew want to satisfy people who expect to see what they loved in the movie, the live show has to be a different experience as well, for both creative and budgetary reasons.

One challenge was showing a twister and its effects on stage.

'The Wizard of Oz'

What: Stage musical

Where: Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., Friday through June 30; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $40 adults, $24 students

Info: 402-553-0800 or omahaplayhouse.org
more photos online See a photo showcase featuring shots from the Playhouse's design team as it prepares for the Friday opening of the stage musical. Omaha.com

Effects old and new

It took modern technology to replicate the tornado sequence from the 1939 movie version of “The Wizard of Oz” for the Playhouse's stage version.

While a digitally created twister, green-screen filming and live actors were all combined for the Playhouse's twister footage, MGM created a tornado with a 35-foot-long muslin stocking that rotated. Both used a miniature model of the farmhouse.

In the movie, Bert Lahr's costume weighed 90 pounds and was made from a real lion skin. At the Playhouse, fabric like that used for Chewbacca's costume in “Star Wars” is both lighter and cooler for the actor to wear.

While the movie had problems with flying monkeys because the piano wire from which they swung sometimes broke, the Playhouse opted not to fly them. The stage wizard, however, will ascend in his hot-air balloon.

In both movie and stage versions, the Wicked Witch makes her first entrance in a cloud of smoke out of the floor — just like Marley in the Playhouse's “A Christmas Carol.”

The trees that throw apples are low-tech onstage, compared to the movie version. Real-actor faces and fabric that suggests bark replace the movie's molded plastics.

Similarly, painted flowers at the Playhouse replace shiny molded plastics used as flowers in movie Munchkinland. But those magical poppies, real flowers in the film, will be costumed children onstage.

— Bob Fischbach, staff writer

The Playhouse went to great lengths to re-create the movie version of what Dorothy sees outside her window while she's up in the tornado. Delinea Design of Omaha combined a digitally created tornado with video of live actors and pieces of flying debris, each individually filmed in front of a green screen and visually layered onto the twister.

You'll see that pair of guys in a rowboat (Dennis Collins, Bill Hutson), clucking live chickens, a grandma (Lois Nemec) knitting and waving from her rocking chair and Miss Gulch pedaling her bicycle before morphing into the Wicked Witch (Sally Neumann-Scamfer).

The video also features a detailed miniature of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em's farmhouse, whirling amid the funnel cloud, just like in the movie. Jim Othuse, the Playhouse's scenic designer, is an expert at making models of Playhouse sets, so this scale house was just another fun project for him.

But the flying monkeys, while elaborately costumed, have been grounded. Collins said space above the stage is packed with hand-painted backdrops, which took priority over the room it would take to have characters fly as they did in “Peter Pan” a few years back. This show has more locations audiences expect to see. Limits to backstage space demand that some be done with paintings rather than large, bulky setpieces.

Michelle Bonker, the Playhouse's scenic artist, and a hired assistant, Craig Lee, have been working since April 8 painting Othuse's designs: canvas backdrops of the Wicked Witch's castle, the main gate and skyline of Emerald City, a cornfield, the farmhouse, the Wizard's inner chambers and his balloon, Munchkinland and more.

Bonker said it was a challenge just to keep more than 20 shades of green paint labeled as she worked, sometimes for 12 hours a day. Her paint was color-coordinated to fabrics used in the Oz costumes.

Othuse made the Yellow Brick Road a rotating centerpiece of the set, disguised to serve as pathways in Kansas and Oz as well.

Costume designer Georgiann Regan said it was essential that the main characters look like their movie counterparts. Dorothy (Charlotte Hedican) will wear her blue gingham jumper. Scarecrow (Noah Diaz) and his hay-framed face will be familiar.

But Regan said sewing often took a back seat to crafting costumes, using materials never before seen on the Playhouse stage. Thermoplastic, heated and molded, became lion paws with claws and headdresses for children playing red poppies. Worbla, a German product that looks like thin cardboard but is far stronger, was used to fashion the silvery Tin Man (Kevin Olsen) and his funnel hat.

Regan took creative liberties with some costumes. Men playing crows will wear zoot suits suggesting the 1930s. A Jitterbug dance number cut from the movie but restored to the musical gave her a chance to get wild fashioning bug headdresses out of Worbla.

Computer-generated fabrics will cover the Wicked Witch's soldiers, called Winkies. Playhouse staffers created the fabric patterns, and a Kentucky company applied them in full color to fabric that could be cut and sewn.

Less high-tech: Playhouse staffers hand-painted novelty monkey masks donated by Oriental Trading to give them that MGM look.

They're also using video projection for special effects beyond the twister. The end to Act One, when Dorothy and friends first see Oz in the distance, also holds a surprise for the audience.

The 24 actors in the adult and children's ensembles each will wear four or more costumes to play Jitterbugs, monkeys, Winkies, poppies, Munchkins, citizens of Oz and Kansas farmers. Children will be busier in Act One, adults in Act Two.

Besides the cast, it takes a village rivaling the Emerald City to create and run “The Wizard of Oz.”

Matt Bross of Delinea spent more than 100 hours creating the five-minute tornado video, with a crew of up to 14 people.

Othuse's scenic and props budget was bigger than usual. About 25 staff, apprentices and volunteers have been working seven weeks building the set.

Regan said her costuming staff of five plus 12 temporary hires and volunteers built the 120-plus costumes, all from scratch. That includes stitchers, cutters, crafters, milliners, makeup experts, fabric designers and wig stylists.

Regan and Othuse began design work before Christmas.

The running crew of about 27 backstage and in the auditorium will include 24 volunteers and apprentices controlling lights and sound, moving scenery and props, pulling backdrops up and down and stage managing, plus 25 dressers. Some take turns, so not all are there every night, but that's still well above the average for a musical running crew.

Even Toto has a backstage handler. Sandi Hansen's Papillon, Remy, who played Bruiser in “Legally Blonde” last fall, is back as Dorothy's precious pooch.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

Contact the writer: Bob Fischbach

bob.fischbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1269

Bob reviews movies and local theater productions and writes stories about those topics, as well.

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