Largo High School students act out a scene from the upcoming show “The Wizard of Oz,” May 2 and 3. From left, Bianca Rotondo will star as Dorothy during the Saturday night performance, Guillermo Caro plays the Scarecrow, stage manager Stephanie Middleton stands in as the Tin Man and Tyler Kubiak plays the Cowardly Lion.
LARGO – In Largo High School’s 100th year – mere weeks before construction begins on the school’s new buildings – the drama, band and choral departments will put on the most elaborate and ambitious musical production the tiny auditorium has ever seen.
“The Wizard of Oz” will run Friday and Saturday, May 2-3, 7:30 p.m., in the Largo High School Auditorium, 410 Missouri Ave.
The three directors of the school’s fine arts program have been working together for more than 25 years. This year, two of them will retire: choir director William Renfroe and drama director Debra Wortock.
The timing was entirely coincidental, Wortock said. They had tossed around the idea of doing “The Wizard of Oz” for a while, before they realized the year would be a culmination of their careers and the school’s 100-year history. They decided an iconic musical, with its own history and sentimentality, would be a fitting finale, said Wortock, who’s been teaching for 40 years, most of them at Largo. She entered a deferred retirement program five years ago.
“I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it, but I definitely am ready. So it’s a happy time,” she said.
In the meantime, she, Renfroe and band director Christopher Benoit have their work cut out for them. Aside from the feat of planning and practicing all the musical numbers, the show will be a technical challenge with three backdrops, more moving sets than fit well in the tiny backstage area and ambitious special effects. A school orchestra of more than 25 will accompany the actors.
“It’s the biggest pit orchestra we’ve ever had. It’s more scenery than we’ve ever had. So we’re so excited,” Wortock said.
Tyler Kubiak, cast as the Cowardly Lion, also is technical director, lighting and scenic designer for the show. The senior said he would be sad about Wortock’s departure if he wasn’t leaving himself. Instead, he’s focused on making sure he and Wortock “go out with a bang.”
“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done here,” he said.
Kubiak, who with his brother performed a Critic’s Choice duet musical at the Florida State Thespian Festival last month, is the president of the school’s drama club and helped secure a $2,500 sponsorship for the show from the Largo grill Abe’s Place.
“It’s our last year. We want to go big. We don’t want to be able to do a Mickey Mouse show in a little theater. We want to do it real,” Kubiak said.
“The Wizard of Oz” will use snow machines, industrial fog machines and bubble machines for special effects. In one scene, the Wicked Witch of the West will shoot fireballs out of her sleeve at the Scarecrow. In another, she’ll melt into a platform on stage, surrounded by fog billowing up around her.
The show has three stage managers to handle all the moving pieces.
“The technical week is going to be crazy. That’s what I’m stressed for because that week, everything has to be coming to life, rotating and moving and action,” Kubiak said. “It all comes together within like four days.”
Traditionally, the school puts on a musical production every other year. But while the auditorium – which Wortock called “the oldest stage in the county” – is being gutted and renovated, that will be on hold.
Wortock said she thought the students are even more excited about the show than they were about “Beauty and the Beast” two years ago.
“I don’t think we expected this to be as big of a show as it is,” said Bianca Rotondo, who will play Dorothy in Saturday night’s performance. “It’s the show of like a lifetime. I’m so excited. It’s going to be amazing.”
Junior Jaime Brightbill will play Dorothy on Friday night.
“We have two because they’re both beautiful,” Wortock explained. “In high school … why not be able to spread it out?”
Brightbill said the role of Dorothy is one she’s always wanted.
“Every time you put me next to Judy Garland, I look like her, which I think is kind of scary. I get that from everyone,” she said. “When I’ve been in theater my whole life playing really small roles, finally being able to do a big one is really something different.”
Singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during rehearsal has helped Brightbill with her own personal battles.
“That’s why I love doing theater. When I’m up there and I’m being a different character, it makes me forget all the anxiety I’ve felt throughout the whole day,” she said. “It makes you take their troubles instead of your own. And their troubles aren’t real.”
A passion for theater
Rotondo, who is a junior but attends St. Petersburg College full time, said Wortock has always been good at teaching her students how to be good people as well as good actors.
“I think she really knows what she’s doing,” she said. “She’s done so many good things with this theater program.”
Kubiak agreed. He sees her passion for directing when she arrives at 6 or 7 a.m. and doesn’t leave the school until 8 p.m.
“I know she loves what she does, for sure, or she wouldn’t put the hours in,” he said.
When she doesn’t have college classes, Rotondo sometimes will sit through all seven periods in the drama classroom, watching Wortock encourage students, who care about drama to varying degrees, to try new things. Brightbill said she too has watched a transformation in students who are taking drama only for the “easy A.”
“You see them get on the stage, some of them crash and burn, but some of them, she gets them to open up. You get to see a new side of people,” Brightbill said.
Wortock said her classes are always mixed with honors, traditional and ExCEL magnet students in all grades. Two years ago, for example, she had the valedictorian, who played Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” in the same class with ninth grade beginning drama students.
“Sometimes that fosters a lot of energy,” she said.
She will miss the thrill of directing.
“That will be my fondest memories … It’s just one of my favorite activities,” she said. “Once you do it, it’s something you fall in love with.”
Wortock has taught at Largo High School since 1984, first as an honors English teacher then as its drama teacher. She taught at Largo back in the 1970s as well, but left to pursue an acting career. Along with auditioning and studying in New York City, Wortock performed in dinner theater productions – most notably “Chicago” at the former Showboat Dinner Theater in Largo and “Pal Joey” in Boca Raton.
In retirement, Wortock said she plans to pursue other interests – travel, sports and kayaking, to name a few – with her husband and spend more time with family.
The school has already selected its new drama teacher, though Wortock isn’t allowed to say who it is.
“He has not announced it to his students,” she said.
Until then, she’s putting her all into this last, ambitious production.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she said.
Tickets to “Wizard of Oz” are $10. For reservations and more information, call 588-3758.