Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and a host of other characters from the lovable classic musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” will be on stage next weekend in a family-oriented fun production at Tiferet Bet Israel Synagogue (TBI) in Whitpain. But the story will be told with a new twist, from a bit of a Jewish perspective.
“When they reached out to me to direct the show, I thought it would be a great chance to create a collaboration between the synagogue, the college and the community,” said Rob Heller, who is an adjunct faculty member, production director and teaches acting at the Montgomery County Community College.
Heller said the show combines members of the synagogue, students and members of the community, along with designers, choreographers and other expertise from the college.
In planning the adaptation of the production for TBI, Heller explained, “We are trying to infuse what is done at the synagogue and the cultural identity of Judaism into telling this story. We are using creative choices from the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield and Gene Wilder and trying to infuse it with a bit of Jewish theatrical polish.”
“We are not altering the fabric of the script with an exception of an ‘oy’ here and there, but we are infusing the way in which we tell the story and the inspiration we draw from it,” he said.
Heller said they are also using some Jewish art on backdrops along with some Jewish costumes. And they have a small band including klezmer instruments with a unique sound that is a little more Jewish.
When they were having some scenery issues, Heller said someone came up with the idea to use a chuppah, which is a covered canopy supported by four poles usually used at Jewish weddings, to portray the house being whipped around in the tornado. “It’s almost like a dance,” he said. “It’s been exciting to find new and different ways to do things.” Heller added.
There are over 30 cast members from ages 5 to 80 portraying all of the requisite characters, including younger ones appearing as Muchkins, poppies, winged monkeys and Winkie guards, along with a chorus of adults. Heller said the most adorable scene is a child playing the role of Toto transforming from a dog to an actor.
And Heller said all performances will be ASL interpreted.
Amber Grier, one of the theater majors at Montgomery County Community College who are performing, is playing the character of the Scarecrow and said she tried out for the part because it reminded her of ”The Wiz.” “I can’t dance like Michael Jackson but I can sing,“ Grier said. “I love musicals and want to major specifically in musical theater.”
As for the cast, “everyone is very positive and very energetic,” she said. “We always have a good time together.”
One synagogue family has three generations that are totally involved in the production. Serving as narrator as well as Professor Marvel and the Wizard of Oz, Buzz Bray said he is really enjoying the experience. A retired teacher from the Wissahickon and Souderton Area school districts and Montgomery County Community College, Bray must have the voice for the role because he said he also played the Wizard character 42 years ago. Bray said his daughter, Melanie Birger-Bray took on the role of Aunti Em, and his granddaughter, Emma Birger-Bray is performing as the Mayor of Munchkinland. He said his wife then decided to get in on this and joined the adult chorus. “As narrator I started throwing in some Yiddish terms and brought a little Mel Brooks and Groucho Marx into it and it is going real well,” he said.
But Bray said being involved brought to mind something he read in a piece about the Holocaust – to just imagine a little girl in one of the ghettos looking at the words of the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Bluebirds Fly. Oh Why, Oh Why Can’t I?”
The impetus for the production came about from members of Tiferet Bet Israel with artistic backgrounds, Lou Fromm, who is serving as the show’s assistant director, and Michael Wasserman, who is producer. Fromm said the idea was also proposed by Susan Kasper, executive director of TBI. “We thought it would be fun for us and an engaging opportunity for the community,” Fromm said. “But we knew we needed to have professionalism.”
He said they engaged Heller, who has directed MCCC plays and was artistic director for the Drama Club’s Short Play Festival in 2017. Heller received a bachelor of fine arts in theater and musical theater from New York University and a master of fine arts in directing and theatrical production from Indiana University-Bloomington.
“It’s nice to have some of the Montgomery County Community College people both onstage and backstage along with people from the community, and we are very proud of how this came together,” Fromm said.