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SMALL ACTORS, BIG STAGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pat-pat here, pat-pat there,

And a couple of brand-new straws;

That's how we keep you young and fair

In the Merry Old Land of Oz!

- E.Y. Harburg, lyricist

The notice for tryouts was like nothing Vicki Smith had seen, and she has been in the theater a long time.

Bring 12 performers, it said. Be sure they can sing and dance, that they show enthusiasm and that they're willing to commit a lot of time.

Oh, and be sure none is taller than 5 feet or weighs more than 100 pounds - otherwise, they'd never fit into their Munchkin togs.

Smith, an Anne Arundel performing arts teacher, has owned and run StageWorkz, a private instructional studio, since 2000, and her graduates have worked at dinner theaters and on Broadway. But she has never felt a greater sense of fulfillment than last month when she helped a dozen pint-size players get chosen to play the storied wee folk in a national touring production of "The Wizard of Oz" when it stops at the Lyric Opera next weekend.

"It's the biggest thing any of them has taken part in," says Smith of 10 girls and two boys who will sing, dance and fete the demise of the Wicked Witch with the Toto Touring Company on Nov. 13-15.

They'll be doing so alongside seasoned New York professionals in a house that seats nearly 2,600 people, all during the 70th anniversary of the treasured MGM film and the StageWorkz' 10th.

The key to landing the parts? Projecting energy - "the kind of thing you can't teach, that comes from in here," says Smith, tapping the part of her anatomy the Tin Man wanted to fill. At a recent rehearsal, the group's 19th, they gave off enough to power a Kansas tornado.

Bawling

They stand in groups of three in a spacious, gently worn studio, clad in identical green T-shirts, bowed and silent.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," trills an invitingly familiar female voice over a boom box, "and meet the young lady who fell from a star."

At those words from Glenda the Good Witch, 12 tiny figures spring into action. "And Kansas, she says, is the name of the star!" they cry, loud enough to shake a floor-to-ceiling mirror and in perfect tune.

The Munchkins are on, from 4-foot-2-inch Emme Sayers, 8, of Millersville to the 5-foot George Constantine, 12, of Severna Park, and for the next half-hour, as Smith and co-instructor Debbie Friedman direct, they create clashing and harmonizing lines, swirl in groups of shifting size and punctuate their steps with funny elfin poses.

"When certain characters say certain lines, we have to know exactly what to do," says Danielle Greco of Crofton, a stage veteran at 12. "The hardest thing is learning all these formations."

They've done so with a couple of weeks to spare, thanks largely to the coaching of a staff composed of performing arts veterans and working actors, including Larry Friedman of Severn, Debbie's husband and the father of Munchkin Kaila, 10.

Things weren't always this precise. As recently as early September, when Smith got the call for auditions in an e-mail, she had a hard time convincing many of her busy students that a stint as Munchkins would be worth the 12 hours of rehearsal time per week required by NETworks Presentation of Columbia, the parent company of Toto Touring Company.

By tryout time, instructors had spread the word among StageWorkz' 140 students and recommended some of the school's most talented performers, regardless of experience level.

Having rehearsed all of three times, the current 12 made it to the Lyric Opera House the morning of Oct. 3 to sing "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead" in a rehearsal studio packed with actors and parents, where they competed against two other talented groups from area studios.

The StageWorkz troupe members, decked out in their own striped socks, multicolored scarves and curly-toed shoes, were nervous at first, but "by the end, we were all having so much fun," says Taylor Baldwin, 10, of Millersville.

"They took instruction so well, and they had great, great energy," says Kim Reiter of NETworks, whose job title is currently "Munchkin Coordinator" (it's on her business card) and who ran the auditions.

When Reiter announced that these were her Munchkins, the room erupted in shrieks, sobs and cheers. "I was bawling," says Munchkin Lily West, 10, of Arnold. Parents rolled video and wiped their eyes.

Leah West (no relation to Lily) even went so far as to risk cooties. "I hugged the boys even though they're boys," she says.

Munchkins in every town

The Toto company has been on the road with the play for a year and a half, hitting towns from Baton Rouge, La., to Hershey, Pa. Chicago Stage Review called the production "a charming incarnation of the treasured American tale."

It's one that comes with updated pyrotechnics (the Flying Monkey guards are now earthbound "Winkies," also played by the Munchkin group, but the Wicked Witch still sets the Scarecrow on fire and melts in the aftermath) and a fresh song, "The Jitterbug," which was written for but didn't make the film 70 years ago.

For legal and logistical reasons, it would be difficult for any professional company to take 12 children from city to city. It's tougher still to find grown-up little people who act, as talent agent Leo Singer did seven decades ago when he cast 124 diminutive adults to play the original Munchkins.

NETworks decided to turn the problem into a strength. They find a local Munchkin troupe in every town, holding auditions six to eight weeks ahead of time.

Reiter has that full-time job, and she loves it.

"No, I never thought I'd be a Munchkin wrangler," she says with a laugh, "but this is a great opportunity to do outreach in the communities we go to. It offers theater students a reward for all those hours they put in - a chance to learn what it's like to work in a professional environment."

The policy requires a trust-but-verify approach. The professional cast includes a few grown-up Munchkins who shepherd the newcomers as necessary. Once hired, the kids must sign an impressive stack of legal waivers.

Networks also sends the actors and their instructors an informational packet containing a DVD of their songs, a PowerPoint presentation that lays out every dance step and a passel of regulations, including strictures on backstage behavior (no video games, no eating or drinking in costume, no petting Toto until after the last show).

Unlike the actors who played the original Munchkins - many of whom, legend has it, partied a bit too vigorously for the producers' tastes - the StageWorkz crew is only too happy to follow the rules.

"We get to take a half-day off of school [this] Friday," says Taylor Baldwin. That's opening day at the Lyric.

Playing with fire

StageWorkz is an educational studio, a place where kids - and even a few adults - can learn the basics of performing on a stage in a setting that feels like family.

Unlike its sister organization, the Talent Machine Co., which was founded by Smith's sister, Bobbi, StageWorkz puts on no formal stage performances and plays down elements of competition.

"When kids get college scholarships, or when things like 'The Wizard of Oz' happen, those are our trophies," says Smith, who started dancing at age 2, won a competition on the old "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" television program at 14 and spent decades dancing in stage shows from Las Vegas to Atlantic City and Paris.

But the staff knows how to prep for a show. Working up an act like the Munchkins' 15 minutes in the limelight "has to be a progressive thing," Smith says.

She, Larry Friedman and another instructor, Bobby Smith (no relation to Vicki or Bobbi), drilled the 12 for a week on choreography, another week to blend and balance the vocals, and another on the militaristic movements of the Winkies, whom the kids, having changed into armor-like costumes, play later in the show.

"You're not allowed to smile," says Alicia Moylan, 9, of Davidsonville. "That's harder to do than Munchkins."

"What's it called, kids?" Smith asks the group.

"Acting!" they cry.

If it's important for Munchkins to know their places onstage, it's crucial for Winkies, who are on hand when the villainess tries to ignite the Scarecrow.

"You can't stand too close to the witch," Leah West says. "It's for our safety. You don't want her to throw fire on you."

Fans by the busload

If energy defines a boffo performance, the Munchkin troupe seems well on its way.

At rehearsal, it dampens no one's spirit when Smith and Debbie Friedman remind one to keep her poses consistent, another to keep her pants pulled up, and everyone to sharpen their expressions.

"Faces!" Friedman cries. "Faces!"

They rotate in twin formations, reassembling center stage as they recount in song Dorothy's dramatic arrival in Oz: "The house began to pitch; the kitchen took a slitch. It landed on the wicked witch in the middle of a ditch!"

And members of "the Lullabye League" bow, welcoming the Kansas girl to their home, the fabled Munchkinland.

So far at StageWorkz, that has been a happy place. It's one where 12 young actors and actresses are hitting their marks as the shows approach, where the parents who dutifully shuttle their children to rehearsals are so excited they've bought blocks of tickets. (Julie Vallerio, mom of Munchkin Mary Vallerio, 10, snatched up 60 and chartered a bus to Saturday's show).

And it's one in which Smith believes that everything the kids are learning is so valuable she has asked each to keep a journal.

At StageWorkz, she says, it doesn't matter if you continue to pursue performing later in life, as many of her ex-students have done. It's about making friends, pursuing a healthy activity, learning and having fun.

But if serious singing, dancing or acting are in their futures, they'll have memories to treasure 10 or 20 years from now - maybe even in seven decades.

"I tell them, by then you'll be grown," says Smith. "You'll enjoy looking back and reflecting on all this. You'll never have a chance to be a Munchkin again."

Munchkin miscellany

* A 1981 documentary, "Under the Rainbow," fanned rumors that the actors playing the film Munchkins took part in drunken orgies. Many witnesses have discounted the accounts. "A couple of Irish midgets named Ike and Mike Kelly got drunk too much," ex-Munchkin Jerry Maren has said, "but that was it."

* Only five original Munchkins survive: Ruth Robinson Duccini, a Minnesota native who traveled to the Hollywood auditions by car; Meinhardt Rabbe, who played the Coroner; Margaret Pellegrini and Karl Stover, members of the "Sleepyheads" subgroup; and Maren. The youngest is 88.

* The smallest Munchkin was 3-foot-4-inch Olga Nardone, who lived out her life in isolation in a small Massachusetts town.

* Maren later found acting work in "Our Gang" TV comedies, the Ray Milland film "The Lost Weekend" and as Buster Brown in a series of TV commercials.

* MGM paid the Munchkins between $50 and $75 per week. "Toto got paid more than we did," Pellegrini said recently. "He had a better agent."

* A persistent rumor that one Munchkin hanged himself during production - an incident some fans insist can be seen in the background of one scene in the film - is "bunk," according to late cast member Mickey Carroll.

Sources: Newsweek magazine; "The Munchkins of Oz" by Stephen Cox; syndicated columnist Cecil Adams.

If you go

Where: The Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Nov. 15.

Tickets: Purchase tickets at the Lyric Opera box office 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or starting two hours before showtime on performance days, or by calling Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or go to ticketmaster.com.

More information: Go to lyricoperahouse.com or wizardofozontour.com, or call the Lyric at 410-900-1150.

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