Dorothy and Toto caught a ride on a tornado Friday night, and landed right in the Shippensburg Area Middle School auditorium where she met up with the iconic characters of “The Wizard of Oz,” to follow The Yellow Brick Road to their way back home.

The Shippensburg Area Middle School (SAMS) Drama Club performed its rendition of “The Wizard of Oz” Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening in the auditorium. Gretchen Leitner and Dr. Paul Leitner, professors of theatre arts at Shippensburg University, directed the show while Shippensburg University alumni and current students assisted in the production. Fifty-two performers were spotted on the stage throughout each performance.

“It’s always great to see the auditions and then see the kids get better from there,” said Gretchen. “They can be so many different characters, even though it’s the same story line. They all make it look easy, but it’s really not.”

“This was a middle school, and we kept the bar high — and (the students) aspired to meet that bar,” Paul added.

The stage was set with an assortment of rainbow colors and sunflowers while gold draped from the lower part of the stage. Three months of rehearsals then took shape in front of the young actors’ family members and friends.

Jeremy Boothe and his family were supporting their son’s friend, Noah Henry, who played The Cowardly Lion.

“I am most excited to see a local middle school adopt a story like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and bring it home to Shippensburg,” Jeremy said before the play began.

Gretchen commended parents for their support in her opening remarks, especially with building the scenery, painting and putting up posters for the event. Paul commended the youngsters, stating, “They are fantastic.” He also commended the five student technicians as “the best crew in 30 years” — Carolyn Hardin, Zachary Barber, Shaylan Camut, Abby Saboe Bri Lantz and Sara Cramer.

Both Gretchen and Paul believe that “art has the power to change people’s lives.”

Dorothy Gale (played by Sarah Hipple) and Toto (played by Noah Eveland) traveled on the Yellow Brick Road through the Land of Oz Friday after the twister whisked them away from Kansas. The twister was depicted by spinning actors, Tornado Company, acting as the wind and had one individual carrying the house from Kansas around the stage.

“I learned not to doubt myself,” said Sarah on playing Dorothy. “I would never have dreamed that I would have the lead role in a play. I’m very thankful.”

On their journey, Dorothy and Toto met a Scarecrow (played by Rose Leitner), The Tin Man (played by Donovan Yaukey) and The Cowardly Lion (played by Noah Henry) on their way to see the Wizard of Oz (played by Clayton Diehl) — and hope to have their wishes granted.

Along the way, they encounter The Wicked Witch of the West (played by Angela Cai), who often interrupts happiness throughout the production with a blinking red light.

“It’s fun meeting new people and making new friends,” said Angela of working on the production.

The crew is met by one final challenge of capturing the Wicked Witch’s broom. In the process, Toto is captured by the Flying Monkeys but eventually escapes — and Dorothy throws water onto the witch, which brings the witch to her demise. They return to the Wizard of Oz, who shows himself, and all their wishes are granted. However, Dorothy has the power to return home by the click of her heels. Glinda the Good Witch (played by Treslyn Staggs) reminds her of this, and Dorothy clicks the heels of her ruby red slippers together, repeating, “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home!”

“Being a part of this production builds teamwork among the students, especially throughout the grades,” said Cheryl Hipple, mother of Sarah and Grace Hipple (who plays one of the Munchkins). “It’s great to watch the experience all the way through and see the final product.”

The SAMS production featured the iconic songs of the popular musical, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

Dorothy is thrust into a world of bright colors when she lands in Oz, and is greeted by the Munchkins, who wore helicopter hats and flowers, and spun umbrellas.

A backdrop screen was used to depict certain scenes like the Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, the home of the Wizard, and even when Dorothy goes back to Kansas.

“Technology has changed,” said SAMS veteran music teacher John Piper, who has been the head of music and choreography for 20 years. “We have a very talented group of kids — nothing has changed there.”

A couple of Paul’s former students were in attendance. Peggy Stum was one of his students in the 1990s and now her daughter, Isabella, was in the play as Luminous, one of the Jitter Bug Dancers. Stum is currently an English teacher at James Buchanan High School in Mercersburg.

Another one of his former students, Andy Ulmer, a 1993 Shippensburg University graduate and now English teacher, was also in attendance to see his daughter, Haven, in the play as one of the members of the Tornado Company.

“(Leitner’s) passion for theater is one of the reasons that I enjoyed his class,” said Ulmer. “I have a continued a love for theater and I now encourage my kids to do theater.”

Ashley Hale, a 2015 Shippensburg University graduate, was one of the many alumni volunteering their time for the program.

“We want to be here. I love it,” said Hale. “It’s honestly a way to relax.”

The Nori Media Group played a large a role and without them, the whole production would have been tougher to put together, Paul noted. He commended Shippensburg 2014 graduate, Cavet Leibensperger, and now Director of Destiny Image of Shippensburg (a part of Nori Media Group) for his role. Paul also taught Leibensperger’s superior, Don Nori.

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