‘Wizard of Oz’ comes to Saranac Lake

SARANAC LAKE – Sometimes all it takes is a wicked witch and a horde of flying monkeys to make someone realize there’s no place like home.

This Thursday night, the Community Theater Players will bring Oz to Saranac Lake in the first of five performances of “The Wizard of Oz” in the Harrietstown Town Hall.

It seems Olivia Zeis has been preparing to take Dorothy’s red ruby slippers for a stroll down the Yellow Brick Road since she was little.

“It’s obviously a role that every little girl dreams about playing,” Zeis said. “This year it’s the 75th anniversary of the movie. It’s affected so many generations; it’s just so iconic. I can remember standing in front of my mirror as a little girl and singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'”

Zeis said she has fond memories of her family watching the 1939 film. Her mom also collects “Wizard of Oz” paraphernalia, and her collection even includes a Wicked Witch of the West Jack-in-the-box.

It’s a keepsake from a movie that is full of wonder, but Zeis said there’s also a lesson there.

“I think it’s a timeless story of a girl figuring out that there is no place like home,” Zeis said. “I think a lot of people can relate to that. Even for me, I live in Lake Placid now, but I still get that feeling that there really is no place like home.”

Dorothy’s wild imagination takes her to an impossibly strange place where horses change color, scarecrows sing and a winding yellow brick road leads to an enormous Emerald City.

There’s also the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Leslie Dame, who swoops in to shake things up.

“It’s delightful,” Dame said. “I don’t have to do any of the singing or dancing, I just kind of come in and ruin everybody’s day, and then leave again, and then come back and ruin everybody’s day, and then leave again. I love it.”

Even though the witch is the antagonist in the story, Dame warned people not to be so quick to judge her. Playing villains might be fun, but part of the challenge is in understanding that even a wicked witch has feelings.

“I play a lot of villains,” Dame said. “Every character you play you have to like, so you have to find the good in the villain to understand why they do what they do. You have to have sympathy for them and be able to relate to them at a certain level. A lot of times they’re outcasts.”

Dame recalled seeing an interview with Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie, and she was impressed by Hamilton’s analysis of the character.

In the interview, Hamilton said the witch was always frustrated because she never got what she wanted, but she still did things as if she enjoyed them.

“There’s a reason why they’re wicked, or upset or evil,” Dame said. “It’s not just that they were born that way. Something made them that way. Everybody wants to be loved, even a witch.”

Besides the enjoyment she derives from playing villains, Dame said she also enjoyed working with the rest of the cast and Director Matt Sorenson.

She added that she’d love to see more performances happen at the Harrietstown Town Hall.

“You’re not seeing an amateur show; you’re seeing a professional-caliber show,” Dame said. “Having it here, in our town, is a great thing.”

Community Theater Players is an independent, nonprofit organization that started in 1973 with the show “Show Boat” at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The organization also performs at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake, but Sorenson stressed that the players are separate from those two venues.

“We’re definitely reinforcing that,” Sorenson said. “The other thing is, with the Hotel Saranac coming and the revitalization of downtown, the board of directors of the community theater and I thought this would be the perfect time to try a new venue and tie it in with the great changes that are happening in Saranac Lake right now.”

The town hall isn’t set up for a show like “The Wizard if Oz,” so Sorenson had to make it happen. He hired Placid Productions to add 24 lights to the eight that were on the stage, and the cast has had to adapt to the lack of adequate dressing rooms.

The space necessitated some finagling, but Sorenson said it was an experiment worth doing.

“To turn it into a presenting venue is something that I, on a personal level, would like to see happen,” Sorenson said. “I’d like to see my town go that way. It helps to make us more of a destination.”

There are 40 people in “The Wizard of Oz” cast, half of whom are Munchkins played thespians 5 to 14 years old. Lake Placid pianist Joey Izzo will perform solo accompaniment for the show’s many songs.

Sorenson tried to keep the performance as faithful to the movie as possible. He said sepia tone would be used during the opening scene, just like in the movie, but he wouldn’t reveal any other surprises.

“The constraint of not being able to have open flame in Town Hall dictated that we were a little more creative, but we do have solutions worked out for all of those moments that people will be expecting to see,” Sorenson said.