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Sugar House Journal

Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts returns to the stage with ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Dec 01, 2021 14h59 ● By Lizzie Walie

The Silver Cast receives applause from the audience. (Lizzie Walje/City Journals)

By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]

Following a nearly two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, students at Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts (SPA) finally returned to the stage. To celebrate their homecoming, the young thespians transported their audience, through song and dance, to the land of Oz. 

Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 work, “The Wizard of Oz” is arguably one of the most widely recognized and revered texts in the American literary canon. Moreover, the text inspired one of the most culturally relevant films of all time, 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” which brought Baum’s characters to life and introduced a new component to the story through song. It’s now been over a century since the book’s first publication and audiences around the world are still swept away by the girl in the blue and white gingham dress and her band of merry misfits.

Director Rose Kiernan curated the school’s version of Oz by drawing inspiration from the original text, the motion picture, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation. Kiernan merged source materials and created a production that felt nostalgic yet innovative. SPA’s Oz also included original dialogue and the inclusion of a delightfully frenzied musical number called “The Jitterbug” which was cut from the 1939 film due to run-time concerns. 

“To be fully honest, I did not think directing a production of the [“The Wizard of Oz”] would bring me as much joy and laughter as it has,” Kiernan said. 

“Maybe it was the fact that many of the students were being introduced to [“The Wizard of Oz”] for the first time, and I saw it in a new way through our creative process and their eyes,” Kiernan said. “Maybe it was the fact that “The Jitterbug” was cut from the film and Jessica Pace’s choreography is exceptional. It may have been our music director Nate Wambolt’s ability to point out intricate choices composer Harold Arlen made in the score. Whatever the reason, I have fallen in love with Dorothy, her heroic friends and her little dog too.”

The play was intimate and interactive, a testament to both SPA’s captivating student thespians, and the simple yet arresting experience that comes with witnessing a production that takes place in a black box theater, a space for smaller audiences and one that offers an almost collaborative nature between audience and cast. These contemporary theaters focus on minimal set designs and an acting-focused experience.

When addressing the audience pre-performance Kiernan welcomed interaction from the crowd. “Often times in a black box theater the audience takes on a life of its own. The audience becomes a character in and of itself. Because of that, we encourage all of you to laugh when you find something funny, cheer when our heroes triumph, whatever reactions you may have, this is the place you can voice them freely,” Kiernan said. 

The play incorporated a series of captivating dance performances, student designed costumes, and a stage crew that worked in such effortless synchronicity that watching them fluidly transition background pieces between sets became a treat in and of itself. The energy was just what you’d expect from a group of performers who were back on the stage after a difficult and prolonged absence. 

Opening night was Nov. 17 and the final performance took place Nov. 20. Due to an interesting directive decision, two different versions of the cast performed, allowing for multiple students to star in leading roles. 

Virginia Grace, who played an engaging Wicked Witch is a senior at SPA. Eager to return to the stage, she expressed sincere gratitude for the experience at large. “I would like to thank my family and teachers, as well as [the audience]. Because there wouldn’t be a show without an audience,” Virginia said.  

Kiernan said she is continually inspired by how motivated the students are. “If you don’t know, many of these students come to SPA from all across the state. Some of them drive as much as an hour each way just to get here every day,” Kiernan said.

Like many institutions, particularly those who rely on performance art, the pandemic posed unique challenges for the school. These challenges are still being worked through as students transition back to the stage. With plenty of shows on the horizon, an upcoming fundraiser, and the reignited passion of both pupils and educators, SPA hopes to continue to bounce back stronger than ever before. Kiernan looks forward to leading the charge.

“We are hoping to rebuild our program in the midst of Covid by offering students the opportunity to work with accredited instructors at the collegiate level,” Kiernan said. “I am so honored to be a part of that journey.”