On Stage: Ease On Down to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre to Delight in the Whimsy of The Wiz

Andrew Kato, producing artistic director of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, will direct the Tony Award-winning musical The Wiz.

Andrew Kato, producing artistic director of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, will direct the Tony Award winning musical The Wiz.

Projection, puppetry and evocative scenery will bring a classical tale with an urban twist to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre four decades after Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion first debuted on Broadway.

The New York City run of The Wiz began in January of 1975 as a cast of African-American actors “eased on down the road” to the Emerald City. Along the way, they picked up seven Tony Awards. Palm Beach County’s award-winning regional theater will raise the curtain on its adaptation of the fun-filled fantasy Jan. 13, 2015. During its 24 showings running through Feb. 1, a series of theatrical firsts will unfold.

“We’ve never done anything like this,” said Andrew Kato, the Theatre’s producing artistic director. “This is completely unique to our audience.”

Introducing projection design to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, the Theatre invested in a 16,000-lumen projector that will be programmed to create special effects unachievable by traditional lighting. When the characters run through the poppy field, the flowers will start to grow around them. When Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, waves her wand, the spell she casts will appear in midair. When Dorothy clicks the heels of the silver shoes that take her home, memories of her journey through the Land of Oz will flash in front of the audience. Act I’s tornado sequence and Act II’s arrival at the Emerald City also will involve projection, a newly emerging technique in musicals.

“Sets are fairly static unless you add some movement to them,” said Kato, who returns as director of a season production for the first time since 2010’s award-winning musical Academy. “Projections add the magic.”

Another element adding enchantment to The Wiz will come from playful puppets provided by the Puppet Kitchen, whose packed portfolio includes Disney theme parks, the Public Broadcasting Service and Royal Caribbean cruise lines.

“My mom was a puppeteer,” Kato said. “That’s where I get my love for the art form.”

Full-body, hand and shadow puppets will have as much presence onstage as the fearsome foursome in search of the Wizard. They will bring to life the people of Munchkinland and the birds in the Scarecrow scene.

“We’re using puppets to tell the story in a very beautiful way,” Kato said, noting that two masters from the Puppet Kitchen will be on-site to train the puppeteers who will appear in plain view throughout the musical.

A third daring decision made by Kato in The Wiz includes flying actors who, suspended by a harness hooked to a pair of cables, will soar across the stage in select scenes.

“I love integrating storytelling with a lot of design elements, and what better show to integrate these elements than The Wiz? Kato said.

The performances promise to kindle imaginations and take theater-goers on a far-out, fictional and funky ride.

“There are a lot of surprises,” Kato said. “These are things that don’t happen in real life. None of it is literal.”

Professional actress Destinee Rae – one of 50 Dorothys who auditioned – will play the role of the Kansas schoolgirl clutching her beloved brown terrier. Professional actors (hired both locally and from New York) will largely fill the rest of the 24-member cast.

Kato said he wants to draw not only a younger crowd to patronize the production, but also an ethnically diverse one.

“Our goal as a regional theater is to invest in shows that represent our entire community,” he said. “Our dream with this is to hopefully bring a different demographic to our organization.”

Costume designer Leon Dobkowski has crafted a wardrobe that pays homage to African culture, and choreographer Jennifer Werner’s dance routines do the same. The score will not change its tune from the rhythmic rock- and soul-gospel genre used in the 1975 iteration. The elaborate set – under construction in the theater’s 7,000-square-foot West Palm Beach building and painting shop – will have a contemporary edge.

Kato said the story will stay true to the original although admitted he never has seen The Wiz live.

“I feel like it’s a good thing that I’ve never seen the original because I’m not married to anything,” he said. “I’m treating it as if it’s an original work for me.”

Because the designers have to negotiate dozens of design details far in advance of rehearsals, the behind-the-scenes work “is almost like planning on steroids,” Kato said.

“I wish I had [another] me to support my vision,” he said of his dual duties as producer and director. “As producing artistic director, my role here is really to support the vision of the other directors and their creative projects. It’s very different when you’re the guy directing.”

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre is located at 1001 E Indiantown Rd. For tickets to see The Wiz or more information about other upcoming productions, call the box office at (561) 575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.

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