When the national touring production of The Wizard of Oz arrives at the Johnny Mercer Theatre March 2, Cassie Okenka will have walked down the Yellow Brick Road something like 340 times.
Okenka, who just turned 24 last week, has played Dorothy Gale in this touring company since September of 2008. In fact, she’s been the only cross–country Dorothy, as this particular Wizard was actually conceived, and first produced, by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company on London’s West End. And then imported to the U.S.A.
One of the most famous stories in all of American literature, The Wizard of Oz is based on the turn–of–the–century children’s book by L. Frank Baum. There’s probably isn’t a single living American who hasn’t seen the classic 1939 film, with Judy Garland as Dorothy, the innocent Kansas farmgirl swept away to the mysterious Land of Oz.
Therein lies the first hurdle for anyone attempting to stage The Wizard of Oz. How do you top the movie everybody loves?
“It’s literally everywhere, so it’s a big task to take on,” Okenka says. “But it’s also fun because a lot of people haven’t seen this show onstage before. So it’s kind of cool to have it all happen before your eyes.”
Her script, she explains, is an “almost verbatim” adaptation of the screenplay – it doesn’t attempt to shoehorn in the elements of Baum’s book that were left out of the film.
“We kind of think of it as a celebration of the movie,” says Okenka. “There’s huge sets. The costumes are absolutely beautiful. Our witches fly, we have flying monkeys, fireballs get shot at the Scarecrow, our Tin Man’s hat pumps smoke. It’s a pretty big monster when you get down to it, creating it onstage.”
As Dorothy, Okenka wears a simple gingham dress, her hair is in pigtails – and yes, she gets to dance around in a pair of ruby slippers.
“As an actor, you’re given a character and you want to be that character as you and the director have discussed, and to kind of honor anything that character has going for it,” she says. “Like you wouldn’t play Peter Pan as a mean little boy.
“With Dorothy, you don’t want to replicate what Judy Garland has done because you’re not really creating anything. But you also don’t want to be different just for the sake of being different.”
A Toledo native, Okenka is admitted musical theater junkie. “I actually started theater in 3rd grade, and I never had a moment of wondering ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’” she reports.
“It became something fun to do, then something extra–curricular, then it kind of just became ‘what I did.’ It wasn’t weird for me to rush home, grab food and go to rehearsal, or to dance class, or to voice lessons. It was just the norm for me.”
Six months before she graduated from Ohio’s Baldwin–Wallace College with a musical theater degree, she auditioned for her first Broadway show.
In a manner of speaking.
“They searched all across the country through auditions and things, and 10 girls got picked to go through this rough, reality show–based audition to figure out who was going to take over from Laura Bell Bundy for Legally Blonde on Broadway.”
Okenko made the Top 10, and was featured prominently when MTV aired Legally Blonde: The Search For Elle Woods in June 2008.
She didn’t make the final cut, and never got to play Elle Woods.
By the time the show aired, however, Okenka was already a college graduate, living in New York and working her “survival job” as hostess at the Brooklyn Diner.
Through a friend, she heard about the auditions for The Wizard of Oz.
“I went in and sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ and they said ‘Can you come back in a month?’” Okenka says. “I said ‘sure.’
“And so a month later I go back in, I have Dorothy’s opening monologue after the song, and for about six hours I’m going in and out of the room alternating with some other people. There’s another girl there. I go back in, I sing the song again, I leave the room, I go back in and sing the song again, I do the monologue.
“You just have to invest in it for the day, but then as soon as you walk away you have to let it go, because you never know what could happen.”
By September, she was bidding farewell to the Brooklyn Diner and starting off on her two–year trip from Kansas to Oz. And back again. And back again. And again.
For Okenka, one of the perks of the gig is getting to work with her co–star, a tiny cairn terrier who has the “role” of Toto. “We travel with two,” she laughs. “You always have to have an understudy, just in case.”
The two thespian canines, both rescue animals, are named Dusty and Loki (the latter dog was actually liberated from a puppy mill in Kansas!)
Every night, every show, “Toto” responds to minimalist hand commands from “Dorothy.”
The learning curve, Okenka says, was steep. “It was a lot more training me than training the dogs.”
The Wizard of Oz
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 2
Phone: (800) 351–7469