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Let's Get Small 

"Where's the line?" wonders Jennifer Gaglione, publicist for The Wizard of Oz. "There was a long line out here--you should have seen it."
Another photo-op flown the coop. But there's plenty more where that came from, as about two hundred little squirts with numbers on their chests (ages eight to fourteen please, and no taller than four-foot-ten) are squirming on folding chairs inside. They're at the Munchkin Auditions, where a panel of celebrity judges will evaluate them on their "animation, energy, and ability to sing and dance the chorus to 'Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.'" The six winning shorties get to rub elbows with Mickey Rooney, who stars as the Wizard in the touring stage production at the Ohio Theatre, which runs through February 21.

Production coordinator Barbara Kelly stands in the wings as the prospects file in. "I was hoping to have signage," she says, wringing her hands at the thought of kids getting lost backstage without clearly marked directions. Good munchkins know how to follow directions, says Kelly--as a crew member with a walkie-talkie works on crowd control--"so they don't get stuck in the scenery or something."

In a waiting room, kids are looking at their shoes, swinging their legs, and staring at their homework. To get their progeny into the cattle call, parents called the theater's Munchkin Hotline (the seven digits don't spell out anything cute.)

The talent looks promising, says Kelly. Lauren Palisamo, a nine-year-old from Willoughby slouching in her seat and playing with her lips, previously appeared in the elementary school production What Should I Give Him?, a Christmas play in which a small child struggles with what loot she should fork over to the newborn baby Jesus, eventually deciding on a puppy. She's a veteran of numerous living-room productions, including one with her friend "where she's the rich lady, and I turn her into a princess." But she hit a slump last year when she auditioned for the grade-school talent show--she and her friends performed the Backstreet Boys' "Quit Playing Games With My Heart," but didn't make the final cut. She's reluctant to talk about the setback.

Patrons of Brecksville Theatre on the Square may remember second-grader Andrew Backis as the goat in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, where the role demanded him to "go onstage, then somebody picked me up and I had to run off." With freckles, a missing tooth, and the blessing of the nuns at Assumption School in Brecksville, Backis has an edge over some of the other prospects. "They all know about it," says his mother of the sisters' attitude toward her son's truancy. "And they're praying for him."

A lot of stage-moms-for-a-day say they went to the library or on the Internet to get the lyrics for "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead," which is rather mumbly on the video version of the movie. Such effort was for naught, it turns out, as the kids have to cram all their grinning, frolicking, and hand motions into the first four lines, ending on a perky note with "Wake up, you sleepyhead." They perform it about twenty times, under the direction of 36-inch-tall Marty Klebba, who's not under fifteen years old. "Can you all see me back there, because I'm smaller than you?" he asks.

Klebba's resume includes a stint as the elf in the Rockettes Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. In this production, he's playing a Lollipop Kid.

"But the best little-person part to have," he confides, "is the commander of the flying monkeys. You get to work with the Wicked Witch."


The Wizard of Oz runs through February 21 at the Ohio Theatre, 1501 Euclid Avenue in Playhouse Square. Showtimes are 7:15 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, with matinees at 12:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. Saturday and 1:15 p.m and 4:45 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $25, $35, and $45; call 216-241-6000.

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