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WIZARD OF OZ: CLASSIC STORY COMES TO SALT LAKE STAGE

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Considering the mode of transportation that Dorothy and Toto use to leave Kansas, you could probably say that the live stage production of "The Wizard of Oz" coming to town next week is on a "whirlwind tour."

But any show that needs to be hauled around in eight semitrailer trucks, with scenery that fills nearly an entire arena floor, is more than merely a whirlwind.The storm warning is out.

Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, a bunch of Munchkins and at least two witches - one good, one really nasty - are blowing into the Salt Palace for six performances July 5-9.

Film critics far and wide have acknowledged that 1939 was a landmark year for Hollywood, which produced an unusually hefty number of classic or near-classic films that are turning "the big five-zero" this year.

(The fact that I recently did the same thing is a point I really don't want to talk about, except to ponder why it is that people have mid-life crises, but inanimate objects, like cars, books and movies become "classics.")

One of those classics - MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" - is among the many films being celebrated this golden anniversary year. A new, mint-condition print recently made the rounds, including a run at the Avalon Theater. And an enhanced video is due later this year.

But the larger-than-life touring production coming to the Salt Palace arena is also commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dorothy and Toto's enchanting cinematic trip from the remote flatlands of Kansas to the wonders along the fantasy-filled Yellow Brick Road to the fabled Emerald City of Oz.

The live, arena-size production premiered earlier this year at Radio City Music Hall, where it received excellent reviews, after which it embarked on the national tour.

This is not just another bus-and-truck stage show. When you're dealing with tornadoes and flying houses, magical kingdoms, Munchkins, disappearing witches and other assorted fantasies, it takes more than just some nicely painted scenery and a few well-placed props.

You need plenty of high-tech equipment to produce an exciting array of special effects.

Which is just what prominent producer-director Michel M. Grilikhes, president of Hollywood-based MMG Productions, has done. The Peabody Award-winner produced five arena shows during the 1970s that grossed more than $60 million - four "Disney on Parade" shows and a touring production of "Peter Pan."

For "The Wizard of Oz," Grilikhes obtained the rights to the movie script based on L. Frank Baum's stories. The stage production closely follows the movie classic.

Of course, staging events on a grand scale isn't new for Grilikhes. In 1984 he served as entertainment consultant to the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee - and many still remember what awesome spectacles the opening and closing ceremonies for those Summer Olympics were.

-THE TOURING PRODUCTION consists of a cast of 42 - not counting Toto - headed by Grace Greig as Dorothy; Joe Giuffre as the Tin Man, Joe McDonough as the Scarecrow, and Guy Allen as the Cowardly Lion.

Grilikhes happened to discover 23-year-old Greig by chance in Las Vegas after an extensive, nationwide "Surrender Dorothy" campaign (including a toll-free 1-800-247-TOTO phone line) failed to locate just the right actress to wear the coveted ruby slippers.

Despite more than 5,000 responses from potential Dorothys, Grilikhes didn't hear about Greig until he was in Las Vegas purchasing some equipment for the show. He was told of a talented young singer-dancer appearing as Snow White in a family-oriented musical spoof titled "Beach Blanket Babylon" - the Sands Hotel version of a show that's been running in San Francisco for 14 years.

A veteran of numerous regional theater productions, Greig was an understudy before she took over the lead of the innocently naive Snow White after an injury forced the original actress to leave the show.

Grilikhes' search for a new Dorothy ended when he discovered Greig delighting audiences young and old with her characterization of the beloved Disney heroine.

Greig played Dorothy in Grilikhes' large-scale production of "The Wizard of Oz" earlier this spring on the mammoth stage of the Radio City Music Hall and then the show embarked on its 69-city tour.

Greig's regional theater credits include "Evita" at the Woodstock Playhouse, "A Chorus Line" at the Annapolis Theater and "Sugar Babies" and "The King and I" for the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania.