Theatre Department brings ‘Wizard of Oz’ to Binghamton

Mainstage musical combines classic elements with new twists

Stephanie Moreno (the Scarecrow), Marisa Cartusciello (the Tin Man), Christine Skorupa (Dorothy) and Margaret Leisenheimer (the Cowardly Lion) star in the Theatre Department's musical production of "The Wizard of Oz." Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Stephanie Moreno (the Scarecrow), Marisa Cartusciello (the Tin Man), Christine Skorupa (Dorothy) and Margaret Leisenheimer (the Cowardly Lion) star in the Theatre Department's musical production of
Stephanie Moreno (the Scarecrow), Marisa Cartusciello (the Tin Man), Christine Skorupa (Dorothy) and Margaret Leisenheimer (the Cowardly Lion) star in the Theatre Department's musical production of "The Wizard of Oz." Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Nearly 80 years ago, Dorothy Gale tapped her heels together and said: “There’s no place like home.”

Home remains the thematic heart of “The Wizard of Oz,” which is coming to Binghamton University in the form of a musical.

“This is a musical about missing your loved ones and working to find your way back to those people,” director Tommy Iafrate said. “It’s also a show about the friends you meet along the way and creating a chosen family for yourself and your journey.”

The Theatre Department’s version of the story made most famous by the 1939 film will take place at 8 p.m. Nov. 10-11, 17-18 and 2 p.m. Nov. 19 in the Watters Theater. Tickets are $18, general; $16, alumni/faculty/staff/seniors; and $10, students.

Iafrate said he talked to his 24-member cast and other show collaborators about “the things about home that we miss the most.”

“It was always the little things: playing cards with grandparents, a certain dish your mom makes, cuddling with a pet … things that are intimate, small things,” said Iafrate, an assistant professor and director of musical theater at Binghamton University. “The memory from my childhood is my mother doing laundry – taking out a load of dry, clean laundry and dropping it on top of me. I was enveloped in this warm cocoon that felt safe and made me feel loved.”

Iafrate’s memory provided the “jumping-off point” for “Oz.” Everything on stage – the props, scenery, even Toto the dog – is made of fabric.

It’s just one example of Iafrate and the Theatre Department putting their own spin on a classic tale.

Take the cross-gender casting, for instance. The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man are played by Stephanie Moreno, Margaret Leisenheimer and Marisa Cartusciello, respectively, while the Wicked Witch of the West is a drag queen portrayed by Jordan Hand.

“I was excited to learn what the ‘new take’ on the show would be,” said Christine Skorupa, who plays Dorothy. “When I saw the new elements and gender changes, I was not only excited to have the audiences be reminded of their childhoods, but to see the show in a modern way, too.”

Stephen Ponesse, a junior marketing major from Staten Island who plays Uncle Henry and the guard of the Emerald City, said he was eager to see how the show could differ from the film version.

“What can we put out there to make it Binghamton University’s Mainstage production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and not just ‘Oz’ as everyone knows it?” he said.

Leisenheimer, a senior theatre major from Queens, admitted that she was initially concerned about making the Cowardly Lion different.

“With our cast and creative team and director, this is becoming something so new and unique,” she said. “You wouldn’t expect this from a classic. We are taking on something that means home, friendships and family and bringing our own interpretations to the show.”

Moreno, on the other hand, was barely familiar with the yellow brick road. She still has never seen the movie after growing up in Brazil.

“This was never part of my culture,” the senior theatre major from Westbury said. “But I was excited when I was cast because I had no pre-conceived notions of how (the Scarecrow) should be.”

It is important for the cast and crew to free themselves from the constraints of the film, Iafrate said.

“We’re still taking our inspiration from the same source material,” he said. “But because ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is such a commonly understood and familiar story in American society, people have expectations that Ray Bolger made the only choices you can make while playing (the Scarecrow). Or if you’re not doing a Margaret Hamilton impersonation, then you’re doing the Wicked Witch of the West wrong. We are working against that. If we didn’t know this iconic story, what choices would we make for the script?”

While the actual script remains generally unchanged, the character of Dorothy is more grounded than Judy Garland’s film version.

“In our production, we’re taking Dorothy back to her roots – how she grew up on the Kansas prairie and plays with her dog,” said Skorupa, a sophomore theatre major from Queens. “She just wants to be loved and accepted by her family. She’s more earthly and less ‘floaty’ than (Garland).”

Hand, a senior theatre major from Garden City, praised the efforts of his fellow cast members.

“Everyone in this cast has done a phenomenal job,” he said. “The best part is that we didn’t expect these specific roles at the outset. It’s been incredible to see everyone bring their own interpretations and making the show their own.”

The show also features the contributions of new theatre faculty members David Wynen (choreography) and Laura Fine Hawkes (scene design). An orchestra led by guest musical director Adam Stout will perform the show’s unforgettable songs.

“We have a lot of new talent on the creative team,” Iafrate said. “It’s funny: On the creative team, I’ve been here the second longest – two years and a month and a half! We’ve been able to make more creative choices and see what other possibilities there are out there.”

While Iafrate wants audience members to enjoy the show and be entertained, he also believes that “golden-age” musical theater can help open people’s minds.

“There are educational aspects (of the show) in terms of turning up our empathy and understanding people who are different from us and being open to different perspectives,” he said of the show’s LGBTQ elements.

“This show explores humanity and the human condition in different ways. We get to see a different type of heroine. She’s not a little princess like Judy Garland. It’s interesting to go on this journey with a character that feels like an outsider and doesn’t fit into the norm. She finds her confidence on this journey of acceptance from others that leads to self-acceptance.”

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