Theatre company is a wiz at special effects

A tornado watch is in effect over the Imperial Theatre. Beware of flying cows and bicycling ladies.

“This show is loaded with special effects,” laughed Debbi Ballas, executive director of the Augusta Players. The company has hired ZFX, the same multi-national company that does the visuals for the hit Broadway show “Wicked,” to help stage their spring musical production of “Wizard of Oz.”

There are only two special-effects companies in the country that fly, and, as anyone who has seen the film or a stage production knows, flying is essential in this musical. Two witches take flight, and a tornado tosses houses, people and livestock through the air. Of course, monkeys take wing everywhere.

But aside from the individuals who’ll learn to act while high over the stage in a harness, the show will also feature a tornado that looks and feels as close to the real thing as the historic theater would want to get.

“It’s a machine that actually will create a simulated tornado, so we will not have to find some artistic way to have the audience imagine the tornado. It will look like a tornado,” Ballas said.

Even bicycling neighbor Elmira Gulch will find her place in the air. In fact, there’s so much soaring on stage that ZFX came into town last weekend to teach the cast how to comfortably and convincingly utilize their equipment.

But the real heart of this story are those folks on a journey down a certain brick road.

“The show really has everything,”Ballas said. “Characters you have grown up with and adore, music, choreography and there’s such a great opportunity for actors to have all that fun characterization. Because they’re not just characters, they’re icons.”

Betty Walpert plays the Wicked Witch, and Charmain Brackett is Glinda the Good Witch. Michael Hamilton, last seen as Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple,” plays the Cowardly Lion. Eddie Renew portrays the Tin Man, and Ballas laughed that Renew is always the actor stuck in the most uncomfortable costumes ever designed: stuffed into a rigid tin suit, poured into the candle Lumiere for “Beauty and the Beast” and hanging from a cross in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”Richard Justice plays the Scarecrow, a role he did 18 years ago for the company.

When Ballas pointed that out, Justice laughed, “I was hoping you wouldn’t do the math.”

Melissa Cannon takes on the role of Dorothy, the farm girl lost in Oz. Even faced with the ghost of the immeasurable Judy Garland, Ballas said that Cannon pulls off the performance like a pro — even when performing “Idol”-making songs like “Over the Rainbow.”

“I have to tell you that Melissa Cannon does it beautifully. Audience members will not be disappointed,” Ballas said. “To have the luxury of having such a dream cast I think is just the most wonderful opportunity and the show itself is just one of my all-time favorites.”

That extends to the gaggle of giggling children that she’s cast as Munchkins.

“Last night, in rehearsal, I just could have eaten them up. They were just too precious and I looked at all the adults and said, ‘What a tough act you have to follow!’” she said. “They ask lots of questions. They’re as cute as buttons. I’ve even had one of them ask me about their motivation, and I thought that was too cute for words. They crack me up.”

And that’s a special effect that can’t be purchased.

‘The Wizard of Oz’
Imperial Theatre
May 2-3, 8 p.m.
May 4, 3 p.m.
Tickets $12-$38


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