Two boys about to take the stage discussed the challenges of playing a Munchkin.
“We have to talk really Munchkin-ish,” said Kaleb Harper. “Squeaky,” clarified Dominic Pellerito, Kaleb’s fifth-grade classmate and fellow cast member in the Cedar Springs High School production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“There’s parts where it’s really hard, and there’s a lot of exercise,” Dominic went on at a recent rehearsal. “It’s stressful. We don’t want to make a mistake and fall off the stage.”
Nor do they want to cross the Wicked Witch of the West, played with gnarled fingers by senior Leah Carter. “They do get a bit of a fright sometimes,” Leah said of the younger cast members.
From the cackling witch and squeaky Munchkins to the golden-voiced Dorothy, some 125 Cedar Springs students are staging the great cinema classic this week. Through six weeks of jam-packed rehearsals, set-building and line-learning, they’ve put together an ambitious production with fewer resources than wealthier districts — but with an abundance of energy and dedication.
Students give it their all and pretty much do it all, said Justin Harnden, a 13-year veteran director whom students affectionately call “H.”
“It’s fun to see kids over-achieve what people’s expectations are,” said Harnden, noting Cedar students can take theater classes for four years. “We’re a high-poverty school district. I would put our shows against anybody’s in the area.
“It’s not uncommon that when you see things click right onstage, you’re standing in the wings with tears in your eyes. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Students also see beauty in how cast and crew come together in the intense experience of staging a play – especially one known to millions who have seen the 1939 film countless times.
Just try stepping into the ruby slippers of Dorothy Gale – for most, Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” — as junior Aubrianna Ensley does in this production.
“It’s intimidating to hit every note like she does,” admitted Aubrianna, who fell in love with the movie watching it with her grandmother.
She credited Linda Janik, her choir teacher and the play’s musical director, with helping her “not only be a better singer but to be a better Dorothy. I never thought I could have sung that song, ever.”
The production pulled together Harnden’s largest cast and crew, including two dozen fourth- and fifth-graders from Cedar View Elementary. They proved themselves melodious Munchkins, joined by high-school students walking on their knees.
“They bring so much energy to the stage,” said Erika Cardinal, the play’s student director. “It’s absolutely amazing for us high-schoolers to see all these kids come tumbling in.”
For Erika and other students, it’s been six weeks of blur sandwiched around exams. The senior called the auditorium “my best friend and my home.”
“You walk through this door and you’re a whole different person. You have a family here.”
The family feel may have to do with everyone pitching in on a big production, in a district where nearly half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Aside from adults helping with makeup, and some costumes and props rented from Civic Theatre, students do it all. Said Harnden, “That’s a sense of pride for them.”
Like Family, Like Magic
That’s what brought Autumn Fish back from Ferris State University to help out.
“I love being in the auditorium. It’s like coming back home,” the 2013 graduate said. “I pretty much spent my entire high-school career in here.
“We realize a lot of other schools have a lot of money and budget,” Autumn added. “We’ve realized it’s not about that. It’s about what you put in personally.”
For Ethan Brown, that meant learning to be the Scarecrow and understanding why he wanted a brain.
“He doesn’t know what the world is like,” the soft-spoken senior said. “He wants a life … to actually be somebody instead of someone that sits on this pole and can’t even scare a crow.”
Up on the stage, Ethan gets to be a Scarecrow with wobbly legs, Dan Draper a Cowardly Lion, Thomas Metiva the Tin Man and Evan Ream the mighty Wizard of Oz. Others get to be Ozians and flying monkeys. For Heather Beverwyk, who plays a poppy and a Munchkin, it is all like family — and like magic.
“We can all be on stage together,” Heather said. “Everything falls away in that moment. We make children happy, and we make old people smile.”