Only a handful of kids are cast as flying monkeys, but tonight it seems the whole cast is.
A March rehearsal for Ithaca High School’s production of “The Wiz” is set to start at 7 p.m. It’s 6:45.
Kids swing from rafters that hang near the tall speakers on the sides of the stage. One does chin-ups, and others try to replicate. Other cast members trickle on stage, while a few wait in the aisles, jumping, spinning, dancing in place and picking each other up.
Gray 2-by-1 concrete slabs stack on top of each other going up, up, up to the ceiling of the auditorium. An odd pattern of gold and red squares sit on top of the slabs of concrete. Stare at the tiles a little too long, and the walls seem to shake.
Seats rest in careful lines, some so new they squeak at the hinges with the sudden touch of a hand. Little lights line the aisles that are so pristine they’ve only been turned on a handful of times. The room’s cold and sanitized like a hospital or corporate office.
Kids file in for the start of rehearsal. Loud, high-pitched voices reverberate from the stage in complete discord. The piano player fingers through a few bars from the back of the stage.
“Guys, if people could just warm up,” Lorraine, the director, yells, marching across a stage of actors abuzz. “Please warm up!”
“We only have until 8 to rehearse ‘Everybody Rejoice,’ then everyone needs to get fitted for costumes,” Lorraine explains to the cast sitting stage left. “Everybody stay quiet and focused.”
“Start stretching,” Lorraine belts out, leaning over a binder she’s examining with Todd, a fireball of a choreographer and dancer.
Daron, the assistant director, has just rolled in, hood up with her head to the ground. From Friday to Sunday, tonight’s rehearsal, she’s had maybe nine hours of sleep. She’s thinking about how she doesn’t want to go to a movie with her mom later as promised.
“I don’t want to do my job,” she says quietly. “I’m tired.”
“Are we ready?” Lorraine asks the group on stage. They sit up from their butterfly stretches and figure fours to look at her. Finally, they’ve gone silent, and all of their eyes focus on Todd.
At 16, Todd left Ithaca to go to New York to dance, and performed in “Cats” and the first revival of “West Side Story.” Now he’s a full-time teacher at Boynton Middle School but choreographs and dances the rest of the time.
“The idea here is joyfulness,” he explains. As the song starts, the cast will dance around the stage. Others will start behind the four entrances to the auditorium. They’ll skip up the aisles to the stage, but not just any skip — it’s more like a gleeful trot.
As the music starts, the cast begins dancing on stage while the rest run up from the entrances, arms flailing and loose as they sing Hallelujah! St. John, a freshman who plays Scarecrow, misses his cue, and the place erupts with laughter. The scene stops.
Dancers struggle to wait patiently as Tony and Lorraine explain blocking to the leads.
“Let’s take it from the top of the song,” Lorraine interrupts. “Everybody to their places.”
After some pointing and pivoting moves, the crew is supposed to form circles. Lorraine says she wants them to get in three circles on stage, hold hands and glide without going too fast, or skipping when they should be fluidly walking.
“No that wasn’t it at all. Just get into the circle as easily as possible. You’re not skipping. And Michael, you were like, running around the circle!”
“Guys, guys come on, this looks like crap. The circles should be wide. Your arms should be spread out. Let’s stop wasting time. No one has extra time right now.”
The crew will try it once more, then they really need to do fittings. They repeat the circles a little better, but not perfect.
Rehearsal is over.
From the first to the last bell of the school day, Lorraine teaches English classes and goes to meetings nonstop. During her few moments off, she coordinates volunteers, plans rehearsals, gets show tickets printed and handles finances.
She’s got rehearsal from 7 to 9 nearly every night. When she gets out of that, she still has stacks upon stacks of Shakespeare papers to grade that all pretty much say the same thing.
At 19, Lorraine moved to the big city. She trained with Circle in the Square Theatre School, tap-danced with the first touring production of “42nd Street,” worked with Joe Donovan in “Celebration” and stared as Carol in “Orpheus Descending.”
Lorraine had a real good run.
But she got tired of the city. After moving to Ithaca with her husband, Lorraine enrolled at Ithaca College to get her teaching certificate and did her student teaching at the high school. She’s been there ever since.
Lorraine loves being a teacher and director, but sometimes she’s frustrated. When she was an actress in New York, rehearsals were regimented and focused. Everyone came ready to give 110 percent, because it was their job, their livelihood. When there are high school kids involved though, that’s not always the case.
If everyone worked as hard as they do during tech, she thinks, the show would be that much better.
But Lorraine knows that no matter how chaotic things become, the show always comes together.
“She looks like an old Ithaca lady, to be honest.”
Eva, the assistant production manager, has just taken one look at Harmony’s new getup.
She’s decked out in layers upon layers from the top of her head to the floor in what can best be described as ’60s grandma chic. On top of her green ankle pants is a long, bright red skirt that drapes just enough to still show her rainbow-striped kicks. Her top looks like a tapestry of red, yellow, blue and green swirls, and sitting crooked on her head is a pink hat that moves even when she’s still. She’s covered in scarves, fringes and bangles.
Early in rehearsal season, Lorraine told Mary, the costume designer, the concept for the show was “urban funky.”
In Lorraine’s eyes, Mary interpreted this beautifully. The munchkins wear neon, flower power prints, while the flying monkeys are dressed as punks with chains hanging from their vests.
Though opening night is only three days away, the sets and props aren’t complete. Day-by-day the scenes will grow, but tonight things are looking pretty sparse. Dorothy’s house is standing but doesn’t have a door.
The rest of the auditorium has gone amuck. Items usually found in junk drawers or garbage cans are strewn about. It’s a sea of wires, coffee cups, water bottles, tape, cords and even more tape.
Todd is eating on the fly. He’s got a Glad container of cereal and yogurt to nibble on. A couple of kids have already started asking if and when there will be a dinner break during the five-hour rehearsal.
Welcome to Tech.
The cast started Tech Week with a four-hour rehearsal Saturday and a six-and-a-half hour one Sunday. From Monday to Wednesday leading up to Thursday’s show, they’ll rehearse for five hours a night. Stage management and crew is there even longer.
It’s the week of last-minute fixes. The sets go up, the acting is fine-tuned and the kinks are tediously worked out. Wednesday’s dress rehearsal is the final run-through before opening night — the last chance to get it perfect.
A single piano plays the overture, its sound quiet and dull without the full pit. Tony clicks his feet on the ground in time with the music. The curtain starts to open and —
“Hold, please,” Laura calls.
The rehearsal will follow something of a pattern for five hours.
“We’re going to start from Engy’s line,” Laura says.
The small group on stage shuffles to its original places and take it from the top. A couple lines, some more shuffling and —
“Hold, please,” Laura interrupts.
During the “Tornado Ballet,” where Dorothy is transported to Oz, there’s confusion on set about where to go, how to move the house and where the house should end up.
Engy, a junior who plays Dorothy, tries to yell to Laura, but it’s deafened by noise on stage.
“Quiet on stage,” Laura nearly yells. It won’t be the first time she says this tonight.
Engy’s costume is the simplest. She’s in a modest, white button up with a billowy yellow calf-length skirt that sails through the air when she moves. Her signature piece, of course, is her silver — not red — sparkly pair of pumps, which she dons after her house kills the Wicked Witch of the East.
Her costume is innocent and homely, a stark contrast to Engy’s usual rehearsal outfits, which include silver hot pants and fluffy slippers. As she lies on the porch of what would be her house post-tornado, she hikes her knees up.
“Engy! Fix your heels so nobody looks up your skirt,” Todd yells.
“Jesus, these young women today have no modesty,” Lorraine jokes.
“That’s gonna be stuck in my throat,” Todd yells as a sudden stink hits the front row. “That’s the strongest costume I’ve ever been around. Seriously, he’s gonna give me a buzz!”
St. John has made his appearance accompanied by the smell of paint varnish. His costume is a suit covered in newspaper and caution tape. It’s tight and stiff, but by the end of rehearsal, pieces will have flung off in a more scarecrow-like fashion.
Later, seniors Ben, the Tin Man, and Elias, the Lion, join to make up the foursome so famous to the story. Tin Man’s costume is a gray workman’s jumpsuit with silver spray-painted steel-toed boots. He’s got a silver hat, metal elbow, knee and thigh pads, along with a random assortment of metal objects stuck on, from electrical outlet covers to air conditioning vents. Lion’s done up in overalls made of a fabric meant to look like a brick wall, with an orange extension cord for a tail.
Dealing with Elias’ mane has always been a problem in the theater department. Taken out of the ponytail he usually wears, it falls past his shoulders in curly brown strands that each has a mind of its own. In last year’s “Babes in Arms,” it got tucked up in a wig. But in this show it doesn’t need to be concealed.
Two hours in as the cast starts to rehearse the Emerald City scene, it’s clear everyone needs a break. Actors restlessly push through lines, breaking to hold their heads in their hands or massage their temples.
“Take five,” Becky finally calls through the PA.
“Thank you five,” everyone mumbles in near unison.
Ben settles on the edge of the stage and stretches back to lie down. Engy literally collapses at the center of the stage, curling her legs under her skirt. She lets out a quiet, nearly inaudible sigh.
It’s Tuesday of Tech week, and by now, the cast should have been running the show from start to finish. Lorraine and Todd are frustrated, but there are still little details to be worked on — like the last scene.
Engy starts from the top of her final song, “Home.”
I wish I was home, I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing. Wind that makes the tall trees bend into leaning —
“I can’t remember the words for some reason.”
Wind that makes the tall trees bend into leaning. Suddenly the snowflakes that fall have a meaning.
Sprinklin’ the scene, makes it all clean —
“Oh my god!” she cries as she begins to hum the missing lyrics.
Take three. Take four. She looks up to the sky and throws her hands out in frustration as she forgets again.
“You are so tired,” Lorraine says to Engy.
Engy struggles through the lyrics again but finally makes it to the final note. As she misses it, she sticks out her tongue with a huge smile.
Two days to opening night. That’s a wrap.
Engy is running around looking for Daron. She didn’t go to classes today and rolled in around 11. She spent her afternoon in a practice room, waiting for seventh period when the cast gave a preview of the show.
Daron rounds the corner with a tall, white Ithaca Bakery cup. She just nuked what remains of Engy’s tea from the morning — mostly lemon and a glob of honey in some water.
“Be careful, it’s really, really hot,” she tells Engy.
Engy’s thankful to have something to comfort her throat, even if it’s just honey and water.
A minute or two before places, the cast circles up in the black box for one more vocal warm-up. Everyone picks a note to sing as loud as they want. The combined sound is ugly and loud.
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” they count down in unison.
It’s time for places.
The curtain lifts.
Kansas is sparse, with just a tilted house, a porch and a clothesline. Toto’s run away, and there’s a big storm coming.
Backstage, Tornado dancers decked out head to toe in black with rainbow colored ribbons tied to their arms form long lines, waiting to swoop up Dorothy and take her to Oz. Their black jazz shoes quietly swoosh on the ground as they start to walk.
“This here’s a big one,” Uncle Henry interrupts a moment between Em and Dorothy as he sprints across the stage.
Dancers come from all directions, some running through the aisles, others flying across the stage.
Sparkly cream scarves dance on their heads as they lift, spin and jump around Dorothy. She’s tugged, pulled and moved across the stage into Munchkin Land.
Dorothy’s disoriented, especially surrounded by a little sea of munchkin midgets decked out in highlighter colored clothes. They walk as if their legs are stuck together, hobbling with small steps.
Harmony waits stage right, adjusting her hat to make sure it’s appropriately tilted on the left side of her head. All the layers she wears make for an incredibly hot and uncomfortable costume.
Pinggggggg, an instrument sounds. Addaperle, the Good Witch of the South, emerges from a blue telephone booth, bangles clinking as she swings her hips.
“You probably know me by my stage name — Addaperle, the feeelllll goooodddd witch — ah ha!”
Harmony’s voice booms as she starts singing, sweet thang lemme tell you bout, the world and the way things are. You come from a diff’rent place, and I know you’ve traveled fa-ar.
Yah-dah-dah-dah-dahhhhh, the munchkins chime in.
Now that you’ve told me what it is, I’d better point ya toward the Wiz.
New silver pumps on foot, Dorothy moves through Oz to pick up her three companions: Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, convincing every one that the Wiz can help them.
Backstage has filled up with Emerald City citizens. They’ve each got at least one green accessory or piece of clothing — be it a suit top or a sash. Some wear their green shutter shades, while others hang them loosely around their necks.
As the curtain closes, a large black sign drops from the top of the stage, sparkling under the lights.
THE EMERALD CITY.
Just two weeks ago, Oseoba was still shy as he made his grand entrance into the throne room. He wasn’t standing very tall, and his voice was a little timid. But tonight, he flies out of his green throne and glides across the stage. He owns it.
So you wanna meet the WIZZZarrdd, his deep voice wails.
His challenge for Dorothy and the gang is simple — kill Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West, and he’ll give them what they want.
They exit stage left, beads of sweat on each of their foreheads. St. John breezes off, his shoulders moving up and down with every heavy breath he takes. Elias, still in character, crawls off on four legs.
Evilene’s warehouse is red, red, red. Red lights blare down on stage as she strides around in a bright red suit with a sheer red train that looks like a trail of glittery fire. Evil-looking glasses sit on her nose, and an enormous red-jeweled necklace hangs heavily from her neck, covering more than half her chest.
“Mm, it’s so good to be a liberated woman,” she proclaims.
A couple lines in, Felicia busts out her tremendous voice, propelling it at the audience and her minions.
When I wake up in the afternoon, which it pleases me to do, don’t nobody bring me no bad news.
“I need you to bring me a lion, a tin man, a scarecrow and a little brat named Dorothy,” she commands a flying monkey after finding out the gang is headed to finish her off. “BRING THEM TO ME!”
“Was I good?” Felicia asks as she walks off stage, still not believing she can act the cruel part of Evilene.
Dorothy and the crew become slaves to Evilene, scrubbing floors, washing windows and carrying water out of her castle.
“So Dorothy, when are you going to give me those silver slippersss,” Evilene slithers off her tongue. “I’ll give you some of ma — ha — beauty tipsss.”
“Oh Lord, mama, don’t nobody want nonna those,” Lion jokes.
“WHAT … did you say,” she recoils moving toward Lion.
In a flash, Dorothy throws a bucket of water, clear pieces of confetti, onto Evilene, liquidating the witch.
As soon as she melts, actors are running down the aisles yelling, “Hallelujah” at the top of their lungs.
They’re full of energy and joy, liberated from Evilene’s shackles. Lights are on full blast.
Back in Oz, the foursome goes searching for the Wiz, only to find out he is a fraud — just a lonely guy from Nebraska who only wanted the simple things in life: money, power and fame. As promised, he gives Scarecrow some brains, in the form of “All-Brain” cereal. He gives Tin Man a heart in the form of a Mrs. Field’s cookie tin, and to Lion, he gives some courage of the Red Bull variety. Elias has chugged the stuff in rehearsal since Sunday. Who knows whether he’s faking the shakes or not.
For Dorothy, the Wiz will take her back to Kansas on a hot air balloon, but come time to leave, she’s too busy dancing.
Ya’ll got it, ya’ll got it, the Emerald City citizens sing.
“Wiz! Wiz! Wait,” Dorothy calls after the floating hot air balloon exits stage left. “Now I’ll never get back to Kansas.”
“How come you joined the circus, child,” Addaperle says, looking at Dorothy and her new friends.
The company has assembled in the wings again, this time just to watch. Faces are serious and bodies are motionless. They lean on each other as they watch their friends finish the show.
Chimes jingle together as Glinda’s theme song starts to play.
“Oh, oh that’s ma sista Glinda’s theme song,” Addaperle proclaims, watching as her sister is carried in by four guards.
Saia’s maybe 5 feet tall, but her voice is anything but tiny. As she sings to Dorothy, telling her to believe in herself, Engy’s eyes glimmer under the light, holding back tears.
Believe that you can go home. Believe you can float on air. Then click your heels three times. If you believe, then you’ll be there.
“I just cried my eyes out,” Harmony says backstage as she gets ready for the second act of the final show Sunday afternoon.
Lorraine took one step into the girl’s dressing room to find all the girls huddled up with heads in their hands.
“Places,” Carrie calls backstage the final time.
Everyone finds a way to get composed. Evilene’s slaves dab their eyes of tears to keep their makeup from running.
As soon as Lord High Underling says, “Make way, make way, make way for the Wicked Witch of the West,” it’s back to business.
But come time for the final scene, everyone’s having trouble keeping it together again.
One by one as Dorothy says goodbye to Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, they take deep breaths, clearing their noses as they try to keep it together. Pairs envelop each other, quietly shaking as Dorothy sings about finally returning home.
Her eyes sparkle under the bright lights just enough to show she’s holding back tears too.
Like yours, like mine, she sings before clicking her heels together.