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Glinda the Good Witch (played by Heidi Swenson) lets the Munchkins know they can come out and greet Oz's newest visitors, Dorothy and her dog, Toto. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)

REVIEW: Kids and dogs and musicals -- oh, my!

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There is an old theater chestnut: "Never work with kids and dogs." Mitchell Area Community Theatre's newest production of "The Wizard of Oz" throws that notion right out window and uses both remarkably well.

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Generations of American moviegoers -- and later, families around their television sets -- grew up with the familiar tale of Dorothy and her visit to Oz. Along the way, she encounters a cast of characters who teach her some important lessons and some beautiful music, too. This year is the 75th anniversary of the movie, a marvel in its day, with color and special effects never before seen. Director Cat Erickson and musical director Twyla Mah have worked their own magic with singing, dancing, special effects and a little dog, too.

Jessica Mefferd, a newcomer to the ACT stage, plays Dorothy Gale, a young Kansan, who isn't getting the attention she needs from her busy guardians, Uncle Henry (Devin Carey) and Auntie Em (Heidi Swenson). Three well-meaning farmhands aren't much help, either, as evil neighbor Elvira Gulch (Pat Beuchler) schemes to confiscate Dorothy's dog, Toto. (Unfortunately, "Toto" did not receive a program credit, but stole most every scene in which he appeared.)

Scarecrow Justin Joramo, Tin Man Steve Laufman and Cowardly Lion Steve Morgan all help Dorothy find her way to the Emerald City, encountering Munchkins, animated trees, cackling crows, and all manner of obstacles along the yellow brick road. Dorothy and friends meet the Wizard (Dean Soukup), ultimately defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Buechler) and use the ruby slippers to help Dorothy find that, "there's no place like home."

The four main characters have a lot of fun, but it's Morgan's charisma in his acting debut which shines most brightly. Carey's city guard evokes a hyperactive leprechaun and is a delight to watch in full tap dancing mode. Swenson's Glinda is a glittering bit of goodness, a perfect foil to Buechler's villainous Wicked Witch.

Erickson uses performers in multiple roles and interpretive dance to create the effect of the tornado, the enchanted field of poppies and a group of "Jitterbugs" who waylay our heroes and assist with Dorothy's capture by the terrifying flying monkeys. You'll have several chances to see children perform more than once -- in 90 supporting roles.

The set, designed by Megann Davis and Carey, consists of several multi-functional modular pieces. I especially enjoyed the boxes used to create the yellow brick road and pieces that allow the witch to melt from view and the Wizard to float away from Oz. Lighting by Tamara Letcher and Josh Labarbera create some keen effects, including a pseudo-rainbow, emerald tones in the city and the enhancement of a very clever Wizard puppet.

The music is pre-recorded which leaves little room for editing or ad libbing. The show is long at just under three hours, but any fan of "Wizard" will find much to enjoy. I personally plan to seek out Cat Erickson and give her a pat on the back for taking on kids and dogs ... and lions and tigers and bears -- oh, my!

The show by Area Community Theatre has performances at 7:30 p.m. today and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Pepsi-Cola Theatre. Tickets are on sale at the theatre for $12 or $14, or more information is available at 996-9137 or www.mitchellact.org.

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