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New 'Land of Oz' musical created in Cleveland debuts at Dobama Theatre

 The Tin Man, played by Jason Eno, is one of the familiar Oz characters in the new musical adaptation of "The Land of Oz" at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.  [Steve Wagner Photography /  Dobama Theatre]
The Tin Man, played by Jason Eno, is one of the familiar Oz characters in the new musical adaptation of "The Land of Oz" at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

When acclaimed Cleveland playwright George Brant was growing up, he was so enchanted with “The Wizard of Oz” that he had his family reenact the story and sing the songs from the movie. He’d assign everyone a part.

“My poor grandma was always the witch. And then my mom was Dorothy, and I always ended up the scarecrow, just because she says that she's going to miss him the most,” Brant said. “I wanted that plum role.”

Brant also came to enjoy L. Frank Baum’s other Oz stories. His father would come home from work and often magically reveal a new book in the Oz series from his briefcase, he said.

“I loved the books as a kid,” Brant said. “I found them scary and fun and everything else.”

Brant is now introducing more people to Baum’s “The Land of Oz” story with an adaptation he started writing 20 or so years ago. More recently, Nathan Motta, the artistic director of Dobama Theatre, gave it a read, in search of a story for audiences of all ages.

“When I first read George's adaptation, I was just so taken with kind of the love and the care and the community of the characters,” Motta said, adding that people have connections to Oz characters from "The Wizard of Oz," "The Wiz" and "Wicked."

The Tin Man, played by Jason Eno, performs in rehearsal along with other cast members of "The Land of Oz" at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.  [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

Motta and Brant teamed up to create a new musical, Brant writing the book and lyrics and Motta composing the music for “The Land of Oz,” which premieres at Dobama Theatre Friday and runs through Dec. 31.

The pandemic afforded extra time to tinker with the project, which also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“I haven't written too much that's been deliberately for younger audiences,” Brant said. “It’ll be interesting to see how this goes out.”

Excitement for the show is mounting. A number of Oz fan groups from near and far have reached out to Dobama Theatre in advance of the musical’s opening. Those aficionados include the international fan journal The Baum Bugle and the Ohio Wizard of Oz Expo, which hosts an annual event.

Whether an Oz super fan or not, there's a mix of new and familiar characters in “The Land of Oz,” like Tin Man and Scarecrow. One of the new characters is Tip, an orphan being raised by a witch named Mombi. Tip is played by Jordyn Freetage, a junior at Jackson School of the Arts in Stark County.

“The only thing [Tip] wants is a friend. And so, he builds himself a friend, and he talks to him. And, you know, he's not really there,” Freetage said. “Then Mombi does some magic, and this friend comes to life and they go on this amazing adventure. And Tip just finds his place and where he belongs.”

 Jordyn Freetage, center, plays Tip, an orphan on a journey in "The Land of Oz" at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.  [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

The music in “The Land of Oz” spans a variety of genres, supporting the different characters Tip comes to know along his journey.

“The Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead sing kind of like a Randy Newman… folksy country number,” Motta said. “The Tin Man sings like a Motown, kind of James Brown-inspired number.”

Even though L. Frank Baum wrote the original “The Land of Oz” more than 100 years ago, the story speaks to current issues.

“A lot of it is about friendship and community and taking care of each other and people who maybe feel like misfits or feel like, you know, feel like outliers, finding their community or finding their family and ways to support each other,” Motta said.

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