The tour stops in Wilmington through Nov. 19, and its leading pup is causing quite the buzz
Toto isn’t in Kansas anymore. In fact, he’s here in Wilmington through Sunday, Nov. 19, on The Wizard of Oz tour, making the Playhouse on Rodney Square one of its nearly 100 stops.
“Toto” – aka Murphy, a 4-and-a-half-year-old white Brussels Griffon/Cairn Terrier mix – falls seamlessly into character, says Murphy’s owner and the show’s musical director, Lizzie Webb. An impressive feat, especially since he has no special training.
His illustrious career began on Feb. 5, 2016, when Webb adopted him from the ASPCA in Chandler, Ariz. He was immediately welcomed by the theater world, where Webb has served as adjunct professor of Musical Theater at the University of Montana, as well as directing and writing shows for Zootown Cabaret, and music-directing mainstage shows like this one. Back then, Murphy started out as a trusty backstage companion to cast and crew and a pit orchestra puppy, sleeping at Webb’s feet while she played piano and conducted shows.
“He was very calm, and handled everything really well,” says Webb. “During the very next show that called for a dog, I asked the director if he wanted to use Murphy.”
He got the role. He’d be Willoughby in Mary Poppins, and later went on to play Toto on a tour prior to this one.
Now, Murphy’s a veteran performer. But during that first Wizard of Oz show, when the audience clapped wildly for him upon his entrance on stage side-by-side with the leading lady, he succumbed to the glory of his newfound fame. He ran off the stage and straight into the crowd to greet his adoring fans – with “Dorothy,” red heels flying, in pursuit down the aisles.
Perhaps wiser now that he’s nearing 5 – or maybe he’s been seasoned by tour life – he’s unperturbed by distractions. “He’s extremely calm and laidback,” says Webb. “Every once in a while he’ll look and see me in the front, but then he gets his focus back.”
His main role during performances consists of being held by the actress playing Dorothy, which he loves, says Webb, so it’s a win-win. During this tour, Webb’s favorite moment of him is during the opening scene; when Dorothy performs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” he attentively watches her sing.
“He’s so sweet and it really adds to the song and it makes it that much more special,” says Webb.
Off-stage, the pup is just as beloved. On the road he has full run of the tour bus, says Webb, and he divides his time wandering from lap to lap, cuddling with any of the 40 cast and crew members.
Murphy’s life is more glamorous than most humans could hope for. “He has his own all-access pass on his leash so that he can get into the theaters,” says Webb. “One of our hotels set up a [dog] bed and silver dishes for him. Today, we got to tour Independence Hall and he got to see some history in Philadelphia.”
Truly, can you think of a better rags-to-riches tale? He even has his own hashtag, #montanamurphy.
Travel down the Yellow Brick Road and beyond with Dorothy, Toto and their friends the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow in this production, featuring special effects, choreography and classic songs. This spectacular celebration of the iconic 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz will blow you away from the moment the tornado touches down and transports you to Oz, complete with munchkins and flying monkeys. Tickets range from $40-$75. Performance times are: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16; 8 p.m. Nov. 17; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 18; 2 p.m. Nov. 19.
The Playhouse has an exciting Broadway season coming up, complete with four full-week productions and two special weekend engagements. After three years under The Grand’s management, the entire Playhouse staff is thrilled about the direction “Broadway in Wilmington” is headed and about the transformation that has already occurred.
To usher in the new season, The Playhouse has introduced a patron loyalty program, called Playhouse Partners. This initiative is designed to reward subscribers for sharing information about performances, capitalize on word-of-mouth advertising and increase audiences and overall downtown visitors throughout the year.
Playhouse Partners gives existing subscribers a rebate when they bring a new subscriber to the Playhouse.For every new referral subscription generated, the existing subscriber receives a $20 rebate—and the new patron will save the same $20.
“We created the Playhouse Partners program as a reward for those subscribers who actively assist us in building that audience,” says Playhouse Executive Director Mark Fields. “They benefit in two ways: a secure future for Broadway shows at The Playhouse and a little cash back in their pockets. It’s a win-win.”
Initial response to the program has been positive. “We wanted to find a way to mobilize current subscribers to help us rebuild a regional audience for high-quality musical theater,” Fields says. “After all, they understand the value first-hand, and a stronger base of support for us means a steady supply of shows for everyone to enjoy.”
And more changes are coming. With the sale of the Hotel du Pont, both staffs are seeing positive changes in the partnership and communication between the hotel and theater. The construction underway has created its unique set of challenges, but both organizations are excited to see this relationship create cross-pollination opportunities between theater patrons and hotel guests.
“As we continue to make the attending experience inside the theater as great as it should be, we are pleased that the Buccini/Pollin Group is working to make the building itself more inviting, more varied, and more enjoyable than it has been in recent years,” Fields says. “The coming years will see upgrades to the Hotel, a new food hall, reinvigorated retail, and eventually residents in the building.”
Fields recognizes that it will take a while to bring about these improvements, and there will be some temporary inconvenience. But, he says, when it’s all done, the building will be transformed into a real showplace, where everyone will want to go and of which everyone can be proud.
Go Over the Rainbow
The Playhouse season begins with what is possibly the greatest family musical of all time, The Wizard of Oz, touching down with eight performances, Nov. 14-19. This magical production—a celebration of the 1939 MGM movie classic—includes breathtaking special effects that will sweep audiences away from the moment the tornado twists into Wilmington. Tickets are on sale now at ThePlayhouseDE.org or at 888-0200. They start at $40.
Leading the cast as Dorothy is Kalie Kaimann, who previously played the role for the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. Chris Duir will play the role of Scarecrow/Hunk; Christopher Russell portrays Tinman/Hickory; and Victor Legarreta portrays the Lion/Zeke.
The other leading roles include: Emily Perzan (Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West); Kirk Lawrence (Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz); Ashleigh Thompson (Aunt Em/Glinda); and Michael Weaver (Uncle Henry/Gatekeeper).
Most important, everyone wants to know who will play Toto. That would be Murphy, a white Brussels Griffon/Cairn terrier mix with scruffy fur and an adorable underbite.Murphy was rescued from the Chandler, Ariz., ASPCA by Lizzie Webb, music director for The Wizard of Oz tour. This will be his second time playing Toto. He even has his own hashtag: #montanamurphy.
Director Dean Sobon previously created the national tours of Fiddler on the Roof and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Amy McCleary, director/choreographer of the national tour of Memphis: The Musical, will create the magical choreography.
As expected, the production will feature all the classic songs by Harold Arlen: “Over the Rainbow,” “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” and “If I Only Had A Brain.”
This opening production promises to captivate the entire family as you travel down the yellow brick road for an unforgettable day at the theater. For more information visit wizardofoztour.com or theplayhousede.org
Literary Café Features Author Jeff Hobbs
Christina Cultural Arts Center leads off its 71st year by unveiling the The Literary Café, a free community program and a partnership with New Castle County Libraries/NCC Community Services.
“For young people to gain a passion for reading, it’s critical for them to observe adults reading and engaging,” notes CCAC Executive Director H. Raye Jones Avery. “Our Literary Café takes the private experience of a great read to the next level by connecting authors and community, and enabling literature lovers to form relationships through robust discussions.”
The first edition of the Café welcomes New York Times best-selling author and Kennett Square native Jeff Hobbs, who will discuss his book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Hobbs graduated from Tower Hill School, followed by Yale in 2002. His work is a haunting nonfiction story with a title that is tragically revealing. Hobbs and Peace were roommates at Yale, and the book is filled with questions about Peace’s life and whether anything could have saved him.
“Our first pick for the Café season is masterfully written by a regionally born author,” Avery notes. “Jeff Hobbs’ work serves as a catalyst for readers to consider how they might redirect loved ones from ‘no return’ toward self-fulfillment.”
The public is invited to join the conversation on two dates—Friday, Oct. 20, 6:30 p.m., at the Route 9 Library & Innovation Center in New Castle, or Saturday, Oct. 21, 3 p.m., at CCAC in Wilmington. Both will be facilitated by Hugh Atkins, former English Department Chair at Tower Hill School, who taught Hobbs. The events are free, but advance registration is encouraged at ccacde.org.
CCAC enjoys a longtime partnership with Atkins and the Wilmington Public Library, which makes this new collaborative venture with the Rt. 9 Library special. In the future, Avery notes, there will be more programs from CCAC in which literature and youth literacy take center stage.
DTC’s 39th Season Delivers a 1-2 Punch
Delaware Theater Company brings a true-life narrative of sports history and racial unrest to the stage in its debut of the one-man powerhouse, Dare to Be Black: The Jack Johnson Story.
Against the backdrop of an intolerant turn-of-the-century America, Jack Johnson – the first acknowledged black heavyweight boxer (1908-1915) – tells his story, through solo performer and play author Tommie J. Moore.
“Jack Johnson was an African American before his time,” says Moore. “He did things in the late 1800s and early 1900s that some would call suicide.”
A controversial figure in the boxing ring and in his personal life, Johnson made headlines for his interracial relationships during the Jim Crowe era. After wresting the heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in 1908, he married Etta Duryea, a white woman, in 1910. Johnson then became the target of white supremacists, who sought a white boxer—”The Great White Hope”—to defeat him. Ultimately, Johnson was arrested twice for illegal transport of white women across state lines. He was convicted, and spent a year in prison. More than a century later, there is a movement to have Johnson posthumously pardoned.
Moore wrote the story as a monologue in one week. He says he felt a need to tell the story. “I know he’s passed away, but this is more about the need for an apology,” Moore says, adding that a pardon would bring focus to the forgotten boxer and the racism that stigmatized the memory of his career.
This hard-hitting journey runs Oct. 25 through Nov. 12. Tickets can be purchased online at DelawareTheatre.org or call 594-1100.
A partnership between The Mill, The Kitchen and The Grand brings fresh energy to the independent theater
Theatre N has new life and new management. The arthouse cinema, reopened in October, will feature independent films every weekend and classic cinema events throughout the year. For the first time since its founding in 2002, the theater, located in the Buccini/Pollin Group-owned Nemours Building in downtown Wilmington, is no longer managed by the mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
Early this year, concerns about the theater organization and its future led to action. Robert Herrera, founder of the community-driven workspace The Mill—and the theater’s upstairs neighbor in the Nemours Building—approached BPG and Zach Phillips, filmmaker and founder of The Kitchen, about possibilities for the theater’s future. From there, a new vision was developed.
Herrera and Phillips joined forces with members of The Grand. That included Beverly Zimmerman, the original theater manager during its most successful years—2002-2013—as well as Bob Weir, a seasoned projectionist and the technical director at The Playhouse on Rodney Square, and Mark Fields, executive director of The Grand and The Playhouse.
“If anybody can revive the theater, it’s the team we have now,” says Herrera. “This is the second coming of the Theatre N.”
The partnership focuses on targeting a young entrepreneurial demographic, expanding to special events, TED Talks and more. One feature of the new system is that the team will now have access to films from every independent studio, not just a limited subset, which was the case previously. Zimmerman will once again take over the film schedule.
The 221-seat theater is undergoing renovation, including a new, state-of-the art projector, and a custom-built concession area designed by Herrera.
“Neighborhood movie theaters are an important feature of any modern city, and as the film industry rapidly changes we think independent cinema will have a growing role,” says Phillips. “Our plan for Theatre N isn’t just to be Wilmington’s indie theater. We want to be a leader in the re-imagination of what an independent theater can be, and make Theatre N a cinema destination in the region.”