'Wizard of Oz' play an homage to beloved film

For Cassie Okenka, playing Dorothy in a touring production of The Wizard of Oz means perpetually acknowledging both the little girl from Kansas and Judy Garland, the actress most closely associated with the role.

The production, which will be staged in Augusta on Friday, was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England as an homage to the classic 1939 film. Ms. Okenka said having a British creative team helped because Oz isn't quite as iconic in England. Still, Garland's ghost hangs over every performance.

"It's something you definitely have to tiptoe around," she said. "You can't stray too far, though. After all, it is Judy Garland that made this character what she is. Still, you don't want to do an imitation."

Particularly tricky, Ms Okenka said, is Over the Rainbow , the big ballad most closely associated with the show. She said not only is there the Judy Garland version to contend with, but also the thousands of versions performed by every little girl who has ever been in a talent show.

"The technicality of Over the Rainbow is tough too," she said. "There's a lot to live up to because everybody does know it. They know when a performance doesn't work."

Although inspired by the film, the two-plus hour performance adds aspects missing from the movie. The excised Jitterbug number was restored, and there's no clever cutting available during a live performance.

"That's the thing," Ms. Okenka said. "When you watch a movie, you are always seeing an edited version. With this, you see a lot more. You see each character's response to a situation. It's a much fuller way to tell the story."

A truly technical show, The Wizard of Oz asks performers to emote against melting witches, violent storms, flying monkeys and the occasional ball of fire. Ms. Okenka said it's easy to get upstaged, which keeps her focused. The greatest effects, she said, are Dusty and Loki, the two dogs that share the role of Toto.

"When we rehearsed, I used a weighted stuffed animal," she said. "But when they put the dog in my hand, this character really came alive for me. I understood what Dorothy was trying to protect."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.

ONSTAGE

WHAT: The Wizard of Oz, presented as part of the Broadway in Augusta series

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Bell Auditorium, 712 Telfair St.

COST: $35.50-$45.50; www.georgialinatix.com

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