ARROW ROCK — Somewhere over the rainbow, eight Columbia children are in Munchkin City performing "The Wizard of Oz."
Hidden beneath flowers, the munchkins curiously watch as Dorothy explores the Land of Oz for the first time. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, descends from the sky to ask whether Dorothy was a good witch or a bad witch, and the flowers rustle as the munchkins giggle at Dorothy's exclamation that witches are ugly.
Location: Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, 114 High St., Arrow Rock
Dates: 2 to 4:30 p.m. and 8 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Price: Tickets are $35 for adults younger than 62, $31 for those 62 and older, $20 for those 13-21 and $15 for children 4 to 12.
How to order: You can get adult-priced tickets online or by calling the box office at (660) 837-3311, ext. 1.
As Glinda breaks out in song to beckon the munchkins to come out, they emerge cautiously, wearing variations of blue clothing, hats and long striped stockings. They dance and sing to celebrate Dorothy as a heroine for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, and send her down the yellow brick road to meet the wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Eight of the 15 children cast as munchkins in the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre's production of "The Wizard of Oz" are from Columbia. They work with professional actors to convey the classic tale of Dorothy's adventures in Oz. The performance runs through Sunday.
Some of the children are new to Arrow Rock productions; others are not. This is the first professional-level acting experience for Sophie Bones, 11, Cole Nowlin, 11, and Isaac Simms, 13.
"Once I learned about this, I was like, 'Mom, we have to go,'" newcomer Cole Nowlin said.
Getting the part
About 40 children auditioned for parts in Arrow Rock's 2013 season plays, including "The Wizard of Oz," in February, Hallie Rainwater said. Rainwater is the mother of two young actors, Abigail, 10, and Spencer, 8.
To audition, children submitted resumes and performed two songs and a monologue. Children younger than 10 were required to sing only one song.
"At first I was nervous," said Cole Nowlin, who sang, "My Name is James" from "James and the Giant Peach" and "Rubber Ducky" from Sesame Street. "But once I was on stage it was just downhill from there."
Phoenix Lawson, 9, said he just wanted to do his best in the audition.
"I felt like when they called I must have done my best," he said.
All of the eight Columbia children were cast as munchkins and some were also cast as poppies and the Wicked Witch of West's flying monkeys. As munchkins, they helped welcome Dorothy to the Land of Oz. Some were members of munchkin groups: the Lollipop Guild and the Lullaby League. As poppies, they lulled Dorothy and her friends to sleep on their way to the Emerald City because of a spell cast by the wicked witch.
The children knew each other through performing at TRYPS Children's Theater but became better friends via "The Wizard of Oz," they said.
Hours of rehearsal
The children, as well most of the cast, have invested eight to 12 hours in rehearsal nearly every day, except Mondays, since May 22. Working with the child actors was a lot like working with adult professionals, artistic director Quin Gresham said.
"All of these kids came well stocked with skills, which made it easier," Gresham said.
It was tiring, the children said, but a lot of fun.
"I was excited to learn something new," Phoenix said. "I was in the Lollipop Guild and they were supposed to be jerky, so I wanted to be the jerkiest one."
The three boys of the Lollipop Guild danced forward to greet Dorothy with an oversized lollipop, right after the trio of girls from the Lullaby League welcomed her to Munchkin City.
Rehearsals took place in the rehearsal hall of the Arrow Rock Old Schoolhouse. At first, the children were called in early to rehearse the munchkin scene, Sophie Bones, said. As they became more familiar with it, they were asked to come in less and less.
The flying monkeys had additional practices to learn how to fly. With the help of wires and harnesses, they leaped across the stage and took ape-like stances waiting to do the wicked witch's bidding.
"The harnesses were very painful, but whenever you are flying it is fun and lifts off the pain," Phoenix said. "You just want to do it over and over again."
One of the hardest parts of rehearsal might have been dealing with Dusty and Snickers, the two dogs trained by William Berloni of Connecticut to play the part of Toto, Dorothy's cairn terrier. Berloni has trained hundreds of animals for productions, including the original Sandy in "Annie."
The cast was under a strict rule that prohibited touching or making eye contact with the dogs to ensure they didn't get attached to the wrong people. That was hard for those who like dogs.
"There were parts I was thinking, 'Don't look at the dog,'" Abigail said. "One time during the yellow brick road scene, the dog made eye contact with me, and I kept thinking, 'Don't make eye contact, don't make eye contact.'"
This is Cole Walker's fifth show in Arrow Rock.
"It's really fun getting to know all the cool professionals and learn from them," Cole Walker, 14, said.
All of the actors were really nice, Sophie said. However, the children agree that Whit Reichert of St. Louis, who plays the wizard, was especially kind. Cole Nowlin said Reichert plays cards with the children backstage.
"He's just like a grandpa to all us kids," Abigail said.
"Watching these kids observe how professionals work and how they approach situations is very exciting," Gresham said. "Many of them go on to train in college and go on to professional careers."
Abigail said one of the highlights of working on the show was celebrating Ellie Barnett's 10th birthday. Ellie brought cupcakes for everyone, and Stephen Neale, the musical director from St. Louis, started playing "all sorts of chords" on the piano. Everyone sang.
"I'd never heard happy birthday that way before," she said.
Six of the kids carpooled together from Columbia.
"(The rides are) really really fun, but we don't talk about the show," Spencer said.
Instead, they talk, laugh and watch movies.
"It's nonstop giggling all the way home late at night," Rainwater, who coordinates the carpool, said.
For two nights during technical rehearsals June 4-6, the kids had a "munchkin sleepover" in the Down Over Bed & Breakfast in Arrow Rock, she said.
"We were really exhausted after the tech rehearsals, but it was really fun," Isaac said. "We all hung around, talked and played games."
"We'd have long breaks, so it was nice to have a cottage to hang out in," Rainwater said.
During the show
Gresham said he was pleased with how the young cast members executed their parts.
Rainwater said the production has been exhausting for the children, "but it's so fun they overlook that. No matter how tired they walk in, when they get their costumes on they are full of great energy."
"Backstage you're worried, but on stage you know what you're doing, and it's really fun," Ellie said.
"It feels like you're automatically doing what you're supposed to do, like you're a puppet," Spencer said.
Some, but not all of the kids want to make acting their career. Those who don't like the idea of being interior decorators, musicians or theater technicians.
Cole Walker, Cole Nowlin and Phoenix said they want to pursue acting.
"You can have mixed emotions, and it's OK," Cole Walker said. "You can be a scarecrow or a tin man or a talking lion, or even Dorothy who's imagining all of this, and it's OK."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.