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Costuming ‘The Wiz’

A pair of Lee seniors design nearly 100 costumes for the 1970’s-era musical.

There aren’t any lions, tigers, or bears. Instead, what made Trena Weiss-Null, Theater Arts teacher at Lee High in Springfield say "Oh my" was the prospect of creating close to 100 costumes for the school’s upcoming production of "The Wiz."

"It’s daunting. There might have been that many costumes in a musical before, but generally when it’s street clothes, kids can go home and get a dress out of their closet and bring it in. It’s not these weird, bizarre things that we have to have," said Weiss-Null.

The Lee Drama department will mount "The Wiz," the '70s-era musical adaptation of the L. Frank Baum classic book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," on April 22-23, and 29-30.

It wasn’t just the odd collection of characters, said Weiss-Null, that made her first attempt at the pop-rock musical a challenge, it was the sheer number of costumes needed, 96 by last count.

"All the costumes have to be either pulled from existing stock, and reworked, or built from scratch," she said.

So Weiss-Null turned to two of her most capable student costume designers — Kelsey Mihaloew and Julie Clark, both seniors. Mihaloew had assisted Liz Hebert, who won the 2004 Cappies Award in costumes for last season’s production of the 18th-century comedy "The Rivals," and both came to "The Wiz" with ideas to spare.

"The week of auditions I started drawing renderings of some different costumes we could use, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a costume head or not. I had all these great ideas for what we should do, so I just started drawing things," said Clark, who has acted in the Lee Drama department since her freshman year, and plays the good witch Addaperle in "The Wiz."

Much like the popular 1939 movie, the plot of the musical revolves around the adventures of Dorothy and her traveling companions the Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion as they travel to the Emerald City to see The Wiz. In addition to costuming those characters, the show also requires costumes for several witches, citizens of the Emerald City, winged monkeys, field mice, crows, and even the famed yellow brick road itself.

"Both of them have had a lot of stage time, and they’ve been doing this long enough, that they really are looking at it from both perspectives," said Weiss-Null.

THE TWO STUDENTS got to work immediately as rehearsals began in early February.

"We sat down and said ‘OK, here are my ideas. Here are your ideas, let’s get started,’ because there are so many costumes we had to start right away," said Clark, who said three snow days in February meant some extra time to work on designs.

The pair mostly works on their own designs, and then collaborates as needed.

"We both have our own binders, and we both do our own renderings, and we’ll compare, and most of the time they’ll look pretty similar. We’re on the same wavelength," said Mihaloew.

Since building nearly 100 costumes in time for opening night would be difficult, many of the costumes have come from existing stock, just altered to become ready for "The Wiz."

"They’re doing a really good job from that. They’re finding — ‘Ooh we have four of these, and we have four of those creatures, let’s take these and remake them into that,’" said Weiss-Null. "It takes a lot of creative energy, because if we were to try to create all those from scratch, there would be no way."

The basic philosophy is simple, according to Clark. As dictated by the 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, "The Wiz" is a more urban version of the children’s tale.

"We’re trying to combine them with a sense of soul. The Wiz is known as a soulful show and a soulful version of the Wizard of Oz, and we’re trying to incorporate that a little bit in the costumes."

Another goal of the costumes, said Mihaloew, was to give the audience a little color in Oz.

"We want to make sure everything is really bright. When she’s in Kansas, we’re trying to make everything really dull — khakis, yellows, tans, really dull colors. When she leaves Kansas and comes to Oz, she’s greeted first by the Munchkins … and we want them to be really bright, almost fluorescent, so you can tell the difference between Oz and Kansas," she said.

While the set for "The Wiz" will be fairly traditional, Weiss-Null said she will be relying on the light design of student Cate Brink, along with the costumes, to provide the excitement.

"I think costumes mean a lot to almost every show nowadays. People have gotten so used to glitz, they expect all this color and flash," she said.