There’s no place like Dayton for talented kids

Muse Machine presents The Wizard of Oz

By Natasha Habib

We all know the story of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, and have probably seen the 1939 film classic or read the stories by L. Frank Baum. Some of us have seen Dorothy whisked away by a tornado or heard “there’s no place like home” more times than we can count. And yet, something about The Wizard of Oz has us singing “Over the Rainbow” over and over again.

So, 17 years after their first The Wizard of Oz production, Muse Machine has decided the time is right to bring it back January 12 through 15.

“Things are so difficult right now,” said producer Doug Merk, “and so trying, the concept of stepping over the rainbow and realizing your dreams, all of that felt just a little bit like what we need and what the audience needed to some degree.”

“The rainbow represents possibilities in life,” said Rufus Bonds Jr., director. “What is most important? That is happiness. And in many cases, happiness is home.”

Even if you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz on stage before, there’s something special about a Muse Machine production.

“They’re going to have a completely different experience,” said Tim Olt, music director, of the audience.

“The kids are creative and wonderful talent,” said Lula Elzy, the choreographer who comes north for the winter from New Orleans, just for the Muse musicals. Not only are the student performers talented, but they have a unique passion for what they’re doing, and a love for Muse and their fellow performers.

“When they love what they’re doing, you see that on stage,” said Merk.

“I couldn’t imagine being away from Muse,” said Cameron Elliot, 17, of Fairborn High School, who plays the Wizard of Oz. He said the quote to take from this musical is “‘there’s no place like home,’ because Muse has been our home.”

“We’re all so different,” said Dan Baugn, 18, from Kettering Fairmont High School, who plays the Scarecrow. “[But] there’s like zero judgment here.”

“This is the place where depending on where you went before, if you didn’t have black friends before, if you didn’t have white friends before, gay friends before, ADD friends before, whatever the case may be — we got ‘em,” said Merk.

The opportunity to do what they enjoy in such an accepting environment means a lot to the Muse students. Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo, 17, from Beavercreek High School, said coming from a military family, she sometimes has a hard time adjusting after multiple moves, but Muse has helped her with that.

“My best friends are here,” said the Wicked Witch of the West performer. “I’m so grateful.”

“It’s something to be proud of,” said Madeline Shelton, 17, from Butler High School, who plays Dorothy. Her entire Spanish class from school is showing its support by attending a performance together.

Jeremiah Plessinger, 17, from Dayton Christian High School, became interested in the performing arts when a friend introduced him to Kettering Children’s Theatre at Rosewood Arts Centre in Kettering. The Lion of this performance, Plessinger, like the other Muse students, already has a few performances under his belt. They all agree though that Muse is a particularly warm environment.

“As Doug (the producer) put it a while ago this year, no matter what your home situation is, no matter what your school situation is, this is a place where you can feel safe and accepted,” said Plessinger.

Passionate and dedicated, the high school students spend four hours every day after school with Muse Machine, and yet their grades don’t suffer. Choreographer Elzy said the students can be seen working on homework in between scenes, the older ones often helping out the younger in subjects they’ve taken before. Muse Machine alumni have gone on to be lawyers, Broadway and motion picture actors and even commissioner of the IRS. Some of the Oz performers have already been accepted to colleges, and some are still pondering their options.

“I have no idea what I want to do,” said Davis Sullivan, 16, from Beavercreek High School, who plays the Tin Man. “I feel like I could never totally distance myself from singing and dancing and acting.”

“[Muse Machine] just brings people together and helps them achieve their dreams,” said Hayley Penchoff, 18, from Oakwood High School, who plays Glinda. “It’s something you’ll remember when you’re, like, 80 in the retirement home.”

And there’s a good chance you’ll remember this Muse Machine production involving approximately 170 students on stage, in the student orchestra and working alongside the union crew behind the scenes.

“There are other places you can go, there are other choirs, where you will hear more technically perfect singing,” said Merk. “But there’s just a joyous reaction that you’ll have by being in a Muse audience. There’s a joy on stage that will spill out, again, because they love who they’re with, they love what they’re doing. And that’s something that a Muse production sort of specializes in, and that’s why people leave sort of on top of the world and they have this wonderful reaction walking out. It’s not because it was an utterly pitch-perfect production, it’s because it was a joyous production.”
Performances for The Wizard of Oz are Thursday, January 12 at 7 p.m., Friday, January 13 at 8 p.m., Saturday, January 14 at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 15 at 2 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre at 138 N. Main St. downtown. Tickets range from $25 to $59 and can be purchased at the Ticket Center Stage box office, (937) 228-3630, online at

Reach DCP freelance writer Natasha Habib at

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