Under the green makeup and flowing gown, the Wicked Witch of the West is — GASP — a man.
David Morton is stepping out of his comfort zone and into heels for the first time for Theatre Cedar Rapids’ third trek down the Yellow Brick Road. The journey starts Friday and continues through mid-May.
Even though he’ll be dressed as a woman, he’s more interested in the character than in specific gender identity. He’s taking a more androgynous approach to the witchy woman immortalized by actress Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” seared in our collective pop culture consciousness.
“I kinda want people to believe she’s a woman, but I want it to be organic. I don’t want it to be like a caricature, although it is Oz,” says Morton, 49, of Cedar Rapids. “It’s more the idea of a witch, whether she has a gender or not. Most people think of them as a woman.”
So he’s putting on the heels and clunking around his house, “freaking out” his pretty parrot and his three little dogs, too, as he develops his character.
“It’s pretty funny — and it’s also kind of scary,” he says. “There’s just this weird kind of feeling you have when you’re putting on women’s clothes and parading around. It’s something I hadn’t expected. You’ve got to really feel comfortable in that stuff, so that’s the challenge for me as an actor — to not be afraid of looking ugly or weird or whatever. That’s part of the fun of creating something like this — to let yourself play like a little kid.”
That’s not totally unfamiliar turf, since he used to play Oz with his sister in their backyard in San Diego. He was the Wicked Witch and she was Dorothy. It was his chance to be mean to her, he says with a slightly evil laugh.
“I’ve seen the movie a million, million, million times. It’s one of my favorite movies of all times,” he says. “I think the story is timeless. What I love the most about it is how even though there’s evil in the world, there’s still more positive — more love than there is evil. I just love that story.”
The movie made another lasting impression on him.
“Actually, it’s what inspired me to even be in theater or do acting, because I thought that Judy Garland was so convincing,” says Morton, who worked professionally in Los Angeles for 13 years, before moving to the Corridor and plying his art with various professional and community troupes.
“I just really believed her. … I didn’t think she was acting for one minute — she was really that little girl — and I still believe that when I watch her. She just had a talent. You never questioned whether these things were really happening to her. At least I didn’t, and I still don’t — my imagination just won’t allow it. That’s what inspired me.”
Stepping into the dual role of bicycle-riding, dog-napping Almira Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West was a leap of faith not only for Morton, but for director Leslie Charipar, as well.
“When we started talking about auditions, I didn’t want to exclude anyone from auditioning,” says Charipar, 46, of Cedar Rapids. “Though Dorothy is traditionally Judy Garland, and there are traditional castings, I wanted everybody to feel like they could come down.”
They did just that: 201 kids tried out to be Munchkins and monkeys. A dozen were cast, ages 5 to 9, joining the principal characters and another 10 adult Ozians, adding up to about 30. That’s a big cast for a big-budget TCR show, Charipar says.
And Morton flew into Oz, ready to play ball.
“The witch is not a particularly feminine character,” Charipar says. “Well, David got it in his head that meant come down and audition for the witch. I gotta tell ya, honest to Pete, he earned it with his audition. It just didn’t matter that he was a man. He looked the part, he got the physicality of the role and just killed it in the audition — and we just couldn’t imagine anybody else in that role.”
Aside from the gender switch, Charipar is trying to keep the staging all fairly traditional, while still adding a few other twists to put TCR’s stamp on the tale.
“That’s absolutely important,” she says, when staging a show audiences know so well. “Making it our own is a lot about what can we actually do theatrically to meet the expectations of a movie audience. We really sat down and said, what are the images I would really want to see? I want to see the ruby slippers, the green witch, the witch melting. I grew up watching the movie. I’ve seen it 45 million times, and so I know it backwards and forwards.
“I knew what I wanted to hear and to see,” she says. “I want to see the Lion with a crown and the red cape and the scepter during ‘King of the Forest.’ So we just did a list of those images that we needed to have in there, and then anything else, we interpreted as we felt we could do it the best in telling the story.”
The same is true of the well-known songs, says musical director Janelle Lauer, 43, of Cedar Rapids. The familiar tunes are in there, she says.
“It’ll be all the songs everybody recognizes. It has some cinematic flair, so there’s a lot of underscore throughout the show. Music always tends to help the emotion along.”
She’ll be in the pit playing keyboards, alongside another keyboard player, percussion and a string quartet. Singer/songwriter Ben Schmidt of Iowa City will conduct the show.
Lauer likes the new touches in this version.
“You have to pay homage to the story and give the audience things they can anchor to, that are iconic. There’s some darkness to it that maybe wouldn’t have been there in the past two versions that TCR’s done. But if you give people something to anchor onto, then they’re more likely to go along with you for the ride for the rest of the show,” Lauer says.
Some change is inevitable when moving from screen to stage, Charipar says, like finding new ways to create a tornado.
“It’s one of those things we’re going to try to make simple and let the audiences’ imagination fill in the blanks. …
“When a theater tries to replicate a film, it’s gonna be a disaster,” Charipar says. “I think our audiences are savvy enough to know (they’re) not seeing a movie. I’m not disappointed, and it’s one of my favorite movies in the whole world.”
- “The Wizard of Oz“
- Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
- When: Friday (4/26) to May 19; 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets: $20 to $30, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
- Extra: 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday (4/27), join the cast for a day of Oz fun at Ushers Ferry Historic Village, Cedar Rapids; $13 and $14 children, free for adults, register at (319) 286-5731 or crrec.org