Audiences were whisked away from their everyday lives to a magical dream world as hundreds gathered to experience the Talisman Players’ production of the classic musical, “The Wizard of Oz” at Kutztown University on Jan. 17 to 19.

The story follows the life of Dorothy Gale, a girl whose life is flipped upside down when a tornado carries her from her home in Kansas to a place she could only ever dream of, the land of Oz. As Dorothy travels through Oz in search of a way to return home, she meets three friends, Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion, who each find a way to help Dorothy along her journey.

“Each of our characters is on a journey,” said Greg Setliff, who plays the Tinman, “and the thing they’re all seeking, they all have.”

When Dorothy finds each of the three friends, they all explain to her first what they are missing. Scarecrow has no brain, the Tinman is without a heart, and the Lion lacks courage and bravery.

“In one of our team-building exercises, we were asked to think about the things that we long for, and we each named things that we were missing—and of course, we named things that we have in abundance,” said Setliff.

Ironically, as the show progresses, the characters learn just what the actors did: The qualities that they undervalue in themselves are the very same qualities that make them stand out to others.

Such team-building exercises have become commonplace for the actors, who have been rehearsing since November in an effort to form as strong a connection as possible for the four friends.

“We’re almost family here,” said Matt Lupacckino, who plays the Lion. “It’s really nice having people to fall back on when you’re getting down or need to talk to somebody. Community theater isn’t just ‘We do shows.’ We connect and we learn from each other and we grow together.”

The connection these actors feel with one another has been building over years of acting experience. Crede Cooper, who portrays the role of Scarecrow, worked heavily with Setliff while performing “Pinnochio,” where Cooper played the title role and Setliff played Geppetto, Pinocchio’s maker. Cooper, a junior at Kutztown High School, has also starred alongside both Lupacckino and Megan Laudenslager, who plays Dorothy. All three were key roles in the musicals “Honk!” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Tom Nardone and his daughter, Christine Storch, are the driving force behind the Talisman Players, with Nardone directing and Storch acting as musical director for “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Tom and Christine and Brandi are the core of Talisman, and they’re just so accepting and willing to take in new people,” said Cooper. “It’s incredible the people they pull in, people who have never acted before, people who have no experience and they just want to give it a try, and through all of that, they all pull together a fantastic show every time.”

Brandi Falco is one of the most important parts of any Talisman show, but you’d never know it just from watching the show. As stage manager, Falco knows all too well that she won’t be seen on stage unless something goes wrong. Without her efforts, though, the actors wouldn’t even have lights to act under, not to mention having props and set pieces moved and ready to go.

With Falco working together with both Nardone and Storch, their experience is top-notch. Before embarking on any theatrical journey, the trio develops a detailed plan of how things are going to run, and then it’s up to the actors to bring it to life while adding their own touches along the way.

“Our director has a vision in his mind, and he has stuck really close to that vision, and he picked excellent people to fulfill that vision,” said Setliff.

When performing a musical as well-known as “The Wizard of Oz,” the director has the added challenge of conforming to the audience’s expectations of the show while still adding some of their own twists to it. When it’s done right, Oz draws the audience in and allows their imagination to transport them to a place that feels real.

“It has this magic around it. The Wizard of Oz is such a special story. It’s a timeless tale, it really is, and it’s something special to a lot of people,” said Cooper.

Once the magical nature of the performance captures the audience, the actors have the ability to relate what their characters are learning on stage to what audience members are experiencing in real life.

“A lot of people can identify with the journey Dorothy’s on,” said Setliff. “We’re all looking for something and sometimes we don’t even really know what we’re looking for.”

One of the most rewarding parts of putting on a show is when the actors get to see that people really do understand the messages that are being conveyed to them.

“A little girl came up to me last night and she wanted to meet me so bad,” said Laudenslager. “Just seeing how it can touch not only kids but adults and just touch people’s lives so much — I get emotional just thinking about it — it’s just so cool to be a part of that.”

Although Oz lasts less than two hours, the cast knows that it can make an impact on their audience for much longer.

“Theater is transformative. Even though they’re here seeing a story which most of them already know by heart, the experience is something that they can take away,” said Setliff. “It’s something special that we’re building right here, we can share it with them, they can take it home, and they can think about it for a long time.”

Becoming such close friends on stage has helped the four leads develop a deeper connection off the stage at the same time. Not only that, some of the same messages they leave with the audience resonate within their daily lives as well.

“The bond that the four of us have created these past few months really comes across on stage. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as comfortable as I do with a group of people on stage as I do this time around,” said Laudenslager. “It’s like you have a second family really. These are the people you’ve got and they’re with you through everything.”

Laudenslager added that the key takeaway from “The Wizard of Oz” is to “appreciate the people that you have with you along your journey. Know that they’re there for a reason and that they’re there to help you with things you don’t even know you need help with.”

The four pals performed Jan. 17 to 19 at Kutztown University’s Georgian Room, but will still have two more shows at Boyertown State Theatre on Feb. 2 and 3. The Talisman Players are also preparing to hold auditions for their next show, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which is prepped to debut in the spring. More information can be found at https://talismanplayers.com/.

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