WEST NEWBURY — Strap on those ruby slippers and get set for a nostalgic trip over the rainbow this weekend when the Pentucket High School Theatre Department presents its version of L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz."
With its themes on the power of friendship, self-confidence and compassion, "Oz" offers a fitting message for high school students poised to embark on their own journey down the Yellow Brick Road. Director Rachel McGowan and musical director Michael Smith keep the classic tale fresh by infusing a couple of Pentucket firsts into their production.
When the curtains rises on opening night Thursday, more than 30 "Munchkins" and "Poppies" recruited from the district's elementary schools will join the older actors on stage. And a real furry pooch — a poodle- terrier mix known as Ellie — will play the role of the lovable yet feisty Toto.
Depicting such well-known characters was a unique test for Dorothy, played by Olivia Dunn, and her band of unlikely comrades, Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion, played by Liam Leonard-Solis, Jon Acorn and Anne Marie Studzinski, respectively.
"The challenge is balancing what people are expecting from the movie with my own personal interpretation of the character," said Studzinski, who plans to study screenwriting in college next year. "For me the greatest lesson from this show is that I am the only one who can decide who I am. The characters expect the wizard to be able to make them great, but ultimately the answer is — and has always been — within themselves."
Mayor of Munchkinland, Julia Malonson, admits she was skeptical about having younger actors in the show. "It's never been done before, and it could have been a complete disaster. But the kids are more dedicated than I could have imagined. They really make the Munchkinland scene, with their adorable flower hats and smiling faces." A senior, Malonson plans to study anthropology in college.
Merrimac fourth-grader Allyson Croteau said the older kids were "really funny and helpful." Veronica Deacon, a third-grader at Page School, cites the musical "Wicked" as among her favorites, so she is naturally partial to the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Melissa Bowden. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, a kindergartner, just likes "hearing Dorothy sing."
"I loved the way when they came in to rehearse, they would always look up at all of us big kids in such astonishment," said Collin Schaefer, who plays The Wizard and hopes to study biology at Emmanuel College next fall.
With a cast of over 100 students ages 4 to 18 years, the addition of a live animal provided an unpredictable twist, said Schaefer. Ellie rarely followed her cues early on in the rehearsal process — "still, it was pleasant to have a dog that you could sit down with and play — especially after rehearsing for a few hours," he said.
"Because we decided to add the extra dynamics of a live dog and little children to the show, it won't be perfectly clean, but it will certainly be interesting. That's one of the charms of live theater," said Studzinzki, who is Ellie's owner.
"Ellie's simply adorable and a perfect fit for the role of Toto," said Dunn, "I won't be surprised if she turns out to be the audience's favorite character."
Recently accepted into New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, Dunn heads to Manhattan this fall, expecting to be "dazzled by the wonders and opportunities of this modern Emerald City." But like her character on stage, she's learned well the lesson that "there's no place like home. Pentucket Theater will always be like home to me."
Studzinski agrees. "My last scene — saying goodbye to Dorothy — is also a symbolic goodbye to Pentucket Theater." It probably won't take too much acting finesse to summon tears during that part of the show on Saturday night.
A record-number 14 seniors — many who began their Pentucket acting careers together in productions at their elementary schools — take their final bow this weekend: Lee Atherton, Melissa Bowden, Ally Cashman, Caroline Carbone, Joe D'Amore, Brooklyn Drougas, Olivia Dunn, Caitlin Foley, Julia Malonson, Liam Leonard-Solis, Cassie Pacenka, Collin Schaefer, Brooke Snow and Anne Marie Studzinski.
"How does one hold on to what is most dear while trying to find one's own place in the world?" McGowan asks. "Like 'Oz,' it's a well-known journey, which never ceases to lose its magic and mystery."
"The Wizard of Oz" runs March 15 to 17 at 7 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Tickets are $10. Senior citizens are invited to attend a free performance of the dress rehearsal on Wednesday at 3 p.m. The nonprofit Pentucket Fine and Performing Arts Foundation hosts the senior citizen show and provides complimentary refreshments.