It’s not where you go, but who you meet along the way: P&J Productions to stage ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at Mishler Theatre

Producers spared no expense ... and Toto’s for real

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Ellie Irwin portrays Dorothy Gale and Ginger plays Toto in P&J Productions’ “The Wizard of Oz.”

Judy Garland was 16 years old when she landed the role of Dorothy in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”

At only 14, Ellie Irwin will play the 12-year-old Kansas farmgirl when P&J Productions and Altitude Entertainment bring the musical to the Mishler Theatre stage Oct 19 to 22. Fewer than 400 seats remain for the four shows that are approaching sellouts.

The ninth grader at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School said she is more excited than nervous, even though this is her biggest role to date.

“My favorite part was meeting and working with the three other principals in the show,” said Irwin. “My favorite quote in the show — I think it was in the movie — is ‘It’s not where you go, but who you meet along the way.’ I just like that whole concept of it’s not the destination; it’s about who she met and what she learned along the way. It’s something I can carry a long way after it all ends.”

Will Jones, who plays the Tin Man and is co-producer as half of P&J Productions, said Irwin is “super talented.”

“This is going to be her coming-out party,” Jones said, noting that her experience with previous P&J Productions included “Oliver!” and “The Music Man.” “So often, you’ll have a 20-year-old play the part, so this is authentic. She is 14.”

Irwin started out at 8 in Altoona Community Theatre’s Sparkle program for children, followed by P&J productions’ “Mary Poppins” ensemble by age 12.

She had plenty of competition for the role of Dorothy and was one of about a half-dozen girls called back for a second audition, said Jim Pollino, director.

“One thing she did in the audition when she sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ and got to the end of the song, she gave me chills,” he said. “She has a real vivacity, freshness and down-home feel.”

Pollino of Ebensburg is the former artistic director at Cresson Lake Playhouse and is a retired drama teacher from Penn Cambria High School. He directed “Oliver!” for P&J last year, and when “The Wizard of Oz” was proposed, he raised his hand.

“I told them I would love to direct this. I’ve never done it,” Pollino said.

The challenges are many, he said, starting with the large cast. More than 100 people auditioned for the 45-plus roles. Jones said it’s the largest cast ever for a P&J production.

“Munchkins, witches, monkeys all up on that stage, all the choreography, scene changes, green smoke for the witch to come and go,” Pollino noted. “It does provide a formidable challenge.”

He credits the cast and crew with working hard to meet them.

“Those little Munchkins are great,” Pollino said of those characters that range in age from 4 to 12. Those roles in the 1939 film were mostly played by adult actors with dwarfism.

Another authentic touch is with the role of Toto, Dorothy’s dog.

“Most productions use a stuffed animal,” Jones said. “We said we’re going full-on with a real dog. We auditioned four or five. … They’re live on stage and they’ve got to be mellow, be able to handle all this noise and jumping around.”

Ginger, a small mixed breed, landed the role but has been something of a diva, Pollino said.

“She’s been a little difficult in rehearsals; she wants to go where she wants to go,” he said. “They’re dancing one way down the Yellow Brick Road, and Ginger is going the other way.”

More practice was in order, and Irwin may have to improvise a little. But Pollino said he isn’t worried.

Irwin, whose parents are Becky and Joey Irwin, said she isn’t worried either.

“It’s trying sometimes, but really, it’s more fun,” she said. “I love dogs, and it’s easy for me to interact with them. And everybody around me is supporting me.”

She said her own Wheaten terrier, Simon, is bigger than Ginger so she can’t practice holding him at home. But, “it’s a little girl’s dream having a puppy on stage,” she said.

Her dream also is to pursue musical theater, perhaps at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Her favorite musical is “Wicked,” which helped her know the backstory to the “Wizard of Oz.”

Jones noted that he and fellow co-producer Neil Port picked “The Wizard of Oz” because of its iconic status and it’s the final season of the two in partnership.

“This is a legacy season and ‘Wizard of Oz’ is a legacy show,” Jones said. “And P&J never did it before. We’ve gone all out” renting high-end costumes and high-definition, Broadway-quality digital backgrounds with cinema-like projections.

Jones said there are at least three “Wizard” musicals available for licensing, with two smaller versions that don’t completely follow the movie line.

“We licensed the most expensive one,” he said. “There’s an expectation coming in that matches the movie. I believe (fans) love the movie, and they’ll love this.”

The version includes “The Jitterbug,” a song and dance featuring Garland that was cut from the final movie. But it was reinstated into the musical adaptation, Jones said.

“It’s a great song, a tap dance number, and we have a great choreographer,” he said.

Choreography is by Kelly Wheeler, and Doug Rhodes is music director. Tony Demi plays the Scarecrow and Rodney Berkey plays the Lion.

“We all wanted to resonate and reflect the movie, but not impersonate those guys,” Jones said. “It’s amazing how many people have that intense love for ‘Oz.’ We respect that.”

He and Pollino said the ending has been tweaked a little so that children can meet the characters.

“It’s poignant,” Jones said. “I think it’s going to be real magical.”

Mirror Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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If you go

What: P&J Productions and Altitude Entertainment’s production of “The Wizard of Oz”

When: 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 19-21 and 2 p.m. on Oct. 22

Where: Mishler Theatre, downtown Altoona

Admission: $20, plus box office fees

Tickets: Mishler Box Office, 944-9434 or www.MishlerTheatre.org

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