Returning to the yellow-brick road

Generations of Americans grew up with Judy Garland’s pigtailed portrayal of Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West’s green-faced grimace and those iconic ruby slippers.

Nigel West, the director of the latest theatrical reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz, did not.

As a result, the play — which kicks off the second stop of its national tour in Tampa this week — faced a bit of an identity crisis as West had to adjust his vision to viewers’ nostalgia for the 1939 film.

West, a native of England, didn’t grow up in the culture of yellow-bricked roads and Munchkinland. The first production he directed toured in the U.K. and had a different spin on the classic movie.

“His initial interpretation was quite different from the familiar characters that we all know,” said Pat Sibley, who plays the Wicked Witch of the West. “His only knowledge of the story was through the script. He never saw the movie before the first show, so it was all his interpretation of the script.”

West’s U.K. version had a man playing the role of the Wicked Witch and changed the character to be more like Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, a Disney villain who is well known in Europe, Sibley said.

“Those changes would not have flown with American audiences, who expect the real thing,” she said. “I believe that I was chosen for the part because I brought Margaret Hamilton (who played the Wicked Witch in the film) to the audition. I wasn’t going to try to reinvent perfection — I just brought what has worked for so long.”

The U.S. tour includes all of the film’s iconic characters and songs. One difference that remained, however, was the character development of the Witch.

“She has so many more layers as a character in this show,” Sibley said. “You really get to know her as more than just a villain in a few scenes.”

Cassie Okenka, who plays Dorothy, also tried to make her interpretation of the girl with the ruby shoes reflect Garland’s.

“The show stays true to the film, and I’ve worked really hard to recreate Dorothy,” she said. “We have all studied the film and worked with the director to get him to understand how huge the film is to Americans.”

With the input of the cast and many viewings of the film, changes were made to the production to preserve the classic in its truest form.

The performance does, however, include a musical scene that was cut from the original screenplay, titled “The Jitterbug.” The number, sung by a bewitched Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, occurs when the Wicked Witch sends her flying monkeys to capture the group.

“(Dorothy and her friends) are bitten by a bug, a jitterbug, that forces them to dance into exhaustion,” Okenka said.

The play also includes images from the film.

“The technical effects are just incredible, and there is the use of projected images of the film that hearken to the classic film and maintain a sense of authenticity,” Okenka said.

Though the play takes cues from the film, Sibley said one way the show differs from the movie is in how it makes viewers feel as if they’re in the middle of the action.

“For years, we have watched this movie in our homes, but this performance puts the audience in the movie,” Sibley said, “It’s like living out The Wizard of Oz.”

The Wizard of Oz starts today and runs through Sunday, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Art Center. Tickets start at $38.50.