Welcome to "Witchita" — for the next three weeks, anyway. The witches of Oz are invading Dorothy Gale's home territory as the blockbuster musical "Wicked" lands for the only Kansas stop on its national tour.
The Tony Award-winning show by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, which tells of the unlikely friendship between Glinda the Good and Elphaba the, well, Misunderstood, will receive 24 performances from Wednesday to Nov. 8.
And Glinda — known offstage as Helene Yorke — can't wait to be back in Wichita to see old friends and show off what she's up to. Yorke, a Vancouver native who grew up in Los Angeles, was here the summer of 2005 as part of Music Theatre of Wichita's ensemble.
"I'm excited to come back and perform on that same stage because that summer was one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Yorke, who has been on this Second National Tour for seven months.
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She plays the bubbly fashionista Galinda, who eventually becomes Glinda the Good.
"I think the show will be a milestone for Wichita because it is so big," she said. "Certainly, the story has cultural connections to Kansas. It's a clever rethinking of 'The Wizard of Oz.' from the witches' point of view."
While Galinda-Glinda begins as a shallow, silly, self-centered slave to fashion, Yorke said she likes how her character matures and finds her gravitas.
"I love her general humor and vivaciousness for life. But as her friendship with the other witch grows, she sees outside herself and learns what the world is really about. There is a song that says 'I Have Been Changed ... for Good' that perfectly captures that."
Opposite Yorke as Elphaba, the green-faced loner in the black pointy hat who is eventually accused of being the Wicked Witch of the West, is Marcie Dodd, a Californian from Yuba City. Dodd has been with "Wicked" for three years, from Los Angeles to Broadway and now on the road.
"I like her spunk, I like her strength," Dodd says of her character. "She's different, although not in a bad way, because she was born green."
The witch, incidentally, was unnamed in the L. Frank Baum children's classic and beloved 1939 movie but given her moniker by "Wicked" novelist Gregory Maguire to represent Baum's initials: LFB.
"Everybody has a point, usually junior high, where they feel that they will never fit in. I can relate to Elphaba's 'greenness' because I was a floater who was never part of any clique," said Dodd, who parlayed playing various princesses at Disneyland into a Broadway career that has taken her from "Grease" to "Hairspray" to "Wicked."
"But you learn what your strengths are and find out who you are. That's what gives you confidence. Performing has done that for me. This has filled my spirit."
Elphaba, the loner, eventually comes out of her shell through her friendship with Galinda, and becomes a favorite of the Wizard because of her brains and abilities. But when she questions authority and displays an independent streak, she finds herself maligned by gossip and politics as a wicked witch. Her "Defying Gravity" is a showstopper moment that is a favorite for both actresses Dodd and Yorke.
It's also the favorite moment for tour manager Jason Pelusio, who travels with a staff of 67 people to oversee the 14 trucks that haul the elaborate equipment, scenery and costumes. He makes sure everyone and everything is in place before the curtain goes up each night. He also keeps track of seven dogs and one cat kept as pets among cast members, including Elphaba's little black pooch named Divo ("Like Diva only he's a boy").
"It's very busy backstage," Pelusio said. "Most people don't realize what an army it takes to keep this show running. It's pretty self-contained, although we pick up nine musicians, 12 dressers and about 40 stagehands at each stop, which brings us to more than 100 backstage."
Pelusio has been a tour manager for 15 years with shows like "The Producers" and "Sweeney Todd." He is a former performer, mostly with opera, who discovered he felt more comfortable backstage.
"During the performance, I'm usually holed up in a small room in the basement keeping track of everything. But toward the end of Act I, I find myself in the wings for 'Defying Gravity.' I still love theater, so that's my reward for doing what I do."
If you go
What: The only Kansas stop of the touring Broadway show, kicking off Theater League's 2009-2010 season
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: Wednesday through Nov. 8
How much: Tickets: $57-$125, available through WichitaTix at 316-219-4849 or www.wichitatix.com.
For more information, go to www.theaterleague.com.