Approximately 100 young performers will take stage this weekend

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FARMINGTON — The production of "The Wizard of Oz" being mounted this weekend by students from Farmington's Mann Dance Academy Inc. won't be a lot different from the last time the studio delivered a stage version of the beloved L. Frank Baum children's story that later became a Hollywood classic.

Judy Mann and her sister Becky are serving as co-directors of the production, which they describe a mix of the iconic 1939 film and "The Wiz," a 1978 remake. This time, they have rewritten the musical score and are employing some updated versions of the original songs. But the story is the same, as are the characters, Judy said. And the timelessness of the material makes it easy to resist the urge to do much tinkering with the material, right?

Well, perhaps not. When the Mann sisters look back at their previous "Oz" production in 2000, they both came away with a vague sense of dissatisfaction over how it ended with a hasty wrap-up to the end of the dream that returns the main character of Dorothy to her family.

That sequence will be extended this time, the Mann sisters said, with more of an emphasis placed on family ties. Judy said that while "Oz" acknowledges the widely held desire of young adults to spread their wings and explore the world, sooner or later, most people realize home is where they want to be.

"We have a lovely cast with some very entertaining kids," Judy said of the production. "There's a lot to smile about. There's some humor, there's some seriousness and, of course, there's the battle against evil."

"Oz" is a production that promotes the same kind of values she and her sister try to encourage through their studio, which they have operated for 23 years, Judy said.

"We feel like it's been a great learning tool for the kids — not just in terms of dance, but in general," she said. "We encourage them to lead good and happy lives through our dance program. We feel 'The Wizard of Oz' was going to tune them in on all of that. It's a learning tool in a number of subliminal ways."

Another positive aspect of "Oz" is its near-universal familiarity among young people. It's been 80 years since Judy Garland skipped down the Yellow Brick Road with her dog Toto in director Victor Fleming's masterpiece, but the film remains wildly popular with children today, Judy said, noting that some of the youngsters in this production know the material better than she does.

"It's been really fun," she said. "We have a couple of kids that have studied the show upside down and inside out."

The production features approximately 100 students ranging in age from 3 to 18 years, so not having to teach each of those young people the story is a big advantage, she said. That has even led a few of them to make suggestions about certain elements of the production to help it remain more faithful to the original film.

The production will pay homage to the 1939 film version by having its early scenes set on Dorothy's farm in Kansas played out in sepia tones. Becky explained that the costumes, sets and lighting will be done in dull black, white and blue tones to invoke that visual effect.

But those visuals will change dramatically when Dorothy journeys to Munchkin Land. For that segment of the show, the Mann sisters have chosen to rely more on colorful lighting than they will on elaborate sets.

"You can do so much with lighting," Becky said, though she noted there will be some impressive set pieces such as the Gates to Oz, Dorothy's house and some landscapes that she and Judy have built themselves.

Rehearsals for the production have gone on for several weeks, but it hasn't been until this week that full dress rehearsals with all cast members have taken place at San Juan College. Judy said those final run-throughs are more pressure packed for crew members than they are for performers because of the demands of getting all the timing and cues right.

She said the move to the performance venue, the addition of all the sets and lights, and all the backstage action, make the experience very exciting for the young performers, particularly those taking part in their first production. But nothing compares with actually seeing her students onstage, Becky said.

"It's so emotional, sometimes we tear up at how awesome they are," she said.

Judy said the evolution of her longtime students is what she finds most rewarding.

"They turn from chubby little 3-year-olds into beautiful young adults with incredible technical ability," she said. "But even the 3-year-olds are so sweet up there. They do what they do, and they're never afraid to get up there. We tell them it's like going to Disneyland."

"The Wizard of Oz" will be presented at 6 p.m. June 7, and at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. June 8 at the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors and children. Call 505-330-6197 for more information.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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