Amesbury Children’s Theatre is discovering that there really is “no place like home” as it opens “The Wizard of Oz” tonight.
A screening of the 1939 film on which the musical is based has led to a new home for the organization, which is celebrating a variety of other firsts as it rings in 2016. In addition to its recently acquired space at Stage Two Cinema Pub, the theater group has a new status as a nonprofit, a new venue in Amesbury Middle School and new programs on the horizon.
With a cast of 68 actors ranging in age from 3 to 40, “The Wizard of Oz” is also the biggest production so far for Amesbury Children’s Theatre, which is entering its third year.
“I wanted it to be a big show,” said Michelle Spadafora, owner and artistic director of Amesbury Children’s Theatre. “I wanted to introduce as many kids as I could, not only to the story but to the experience of bringing it to life.”
After casting the show in September and starting rehearsals shortly after, Spadafora soon learned that “about 90 percent of the cast had never seen the movie.”
So around Halloween, Spadafora planned a movie party at Stage Two so that everyone could see the adventures of Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, after they are transported to the magical land of Oz, where they meet a host of unique and colorful characters.
After the screening, Spadafora said she was talking to the Turbity family, who own the cinema, and they mentioned that they had space available in the building. Soon after, Spadafora officially moved her theater company in.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “It’s a great space because it’s a working space. We can build our sets there, we can store our costumes there. We have all our rehearsals there, all our meetings there.”
Prior to Stage Two, rehearsals were held at Unity on the River, an Amesbury church.
“They were great to us,” Spadafora said.
Starting with this show, the theater also needed a new venue, and that’s where Amesbury Middle School came in. All of the previous productions were staged at Sparhawk School.
“We really outgrew Sparhawk,” Spadafora said. “All of our performances last year were sold out, and we had to turn away people at the door.”
The middle school auditorium offers a bigger stage and more seats for audience members, and Spadafora said that she hopes future productions can be held there, as well.
The new venue will also provide the setting for two more firsts for Amesbury Children’s Theatre: the first production featuring a live band and the first cast member with four legs. MiniMe Sachs plays Toto.
“She’s unbelievably talented,” Spadafora said. “She’s been in a lot of shows.”
Owner Kathleen Sachs of Georgetown has been on hand during rehearsals to teach the kids how to work with her dog, whose previous roles include several turns as Sandy in “Annie” in various local theater productions.
Sharing the role of Toto with MiniMe is 4-year-old Kellan Upton, who takes on the part of Dorothy’s pet when she wakes up in Munchkinland.
“That’s all he wanted to be, he just wanted to be Toto,” Spadafora said. “We kind of made the part to include him. He is unbelievable. He’s just a really fun kid to work with.”
Witnessing kids like Kellan and his fellow cast members — as well as those behind the scenes — progress through rehearsals has been rewarding for Spadafora.
“It’s been awesome watching the kids,” she said. “They’ve learned stage directions, they know what a prop is, they know how to make costume pieces, they’ve had opportunities to build sets. It’s all about what they learned.”
And it’s not just about the kids. Spadafora has been making an effort to include more adults in each production, as well, and “The Wizard of Oz” features 10 of them.
“The reason we’re trying to bring in adults is I really want it to be family-friendly,” Spadafora said. “I really want adults to have a chance to perform with their kids.”
Bridget Sweeney of Amesbury has been having fun doing just that. She is in the musical along with her husband, Jeffrey, and two daughters, Morgan, 10, and Alexis, 9.
“We’ll never lose that memory of doing something like this together,” said Sweeney, who is getting back into acting for the first time since high school.
Bridget and Morgan play Optimistic Voices — “We sing the song as they are entering the Emerald City,” Sweeney said — and Brush-up Girls, who primp Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow before their meeting with the Wizard. Jeffrey is a citizen of Oz, and Alexis is a Munchkin diplomat and a Jitterbug.
“It’s just brought back all the same energy back in high school when I used to do this,” Sweeney said. “It’s cool to be able to see my girls experiencing it. My husband had reservations, but it’s been great to see the kids coming into their roles. He said it’s been a cool experience.”
One of the things for which Spadafora has been most grateful since she started the theater company with Bethany Kolenda in 2013 is the support of the community, from places like the church, cinema and school offering space to sponsorships from businesses like Barking Dog Bar & Grill, which is the group’s main sponsor, and Nest and Phat Cats Bistro, which have offered additional support.
Obtaining nonprofit status from the state, something that was just made official a couple of weeks ago, “opens up more financial opportunities for us,” Spadafora said.
“The more financially stable we become, the more we can offer to the community,” she said. “People would much rather give to a nonprofit, especially businesses.”
Those increased offerings include a summer camp program starting this summer and an umbrella company, ACT II, for children 14 and up that will put on more difficult shows, beginning with “Godspell” this spring.
“This is really a feather in the cap for Amesbury, and we just really appreciate what they’ve brought to our town,” Sweeney said.
If you go
What: “The Wizard of Oz”
When: Today, tomorrow and Saturday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Amesbury Middle School, 220 Main St.
How much: $12 general admission, $18 for limited reserved seating