South Charlotte

‘Wizard of Oz’ marks 20 years at Matthews Playhouse

June Bayless looks on as choreographer Bo Broadwell works with the Munchkins.
June Bayless looks on as choreographer Bo Broadwell works with the Munchkins. MELINDA JOHNSTON

Matthews Playhouse is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a $70,000 production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

The show opens June 12 and plays weekends through June 28.

Matthews Playhouse Executive/Artistic Director, June Bayless, has traveled down the “yellow brick road” for two decades now, and says it’s been a surprising, incredible journey.

“Twenty years ago I was working at Charlotte Children’s Theatre and I loved it, but I was working all the time. My children were little and my husband (Emmy-winning special effects makeup artist John Bayless) traveled all the time,” Bayless said. “My mother was like a mosquito constantly buzzing in my ear telling me that I needed to slow down, needed to spend more time with my kids. They would only be young once.

“A few of the talented kids at Children’s Theatre lived in Matthews and their parents talked about how hard it was to bring their kids to Charlotte every day. I decided to open a small place in Matthews and these became the core families.”

Fast forward two decades and the growth is stunning.

Matthews Playhouse served 1,100 kids in camps last summer, taught over 400 children in classes during the school year, and currently produces 11 shows each year. They also have broadened their scope from a children’s theater to a family theater.

Bayless laughs when people ask about her original business plan.

“I never meant for all this to happen. I had no plan. I had no goals. I thought I’d teach a couple of classes and do a few productions. No way did I see this coming,” Bayless said.

From “Scrooge” to “Peter Pan,” “South Pacific” to “Shrek,” Bayless carefully selects each play with both an artistic eye and a keen understanding of the business.

“People say I’m unique because I am able to direct and tend to the artistic needs, but also have a good business sense,” she said. “You have to have a balance or you can run the organization in the ground pretty quickly.”

Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor, who made his stage debut last fall in the Matthews Playhouse production of “Our Town,” says his town is very lucky to be able to claim the theater as their own.

“Both June and the Playhouse are tremendous assets to the entire community,” Taylor said. “What they have accomplished over the past 20 years has been phenomenal. Their shows are wonderful productions and allow us to enjoy quality theater without having to go to uptown Charlotte.”

“I am constantly amazed at the talent in that organization. From the youngest to the oldest, they are true professionals.”

Bayless said the upcoming production of “Wizard of Oz” is the biggest undertaking the Playhouse has ever attempted with flying monkeys and witches, fire, over 200 costumes, and more. The Lion and Tin Man costumes are coming all the way from the production in Madison Square Garden.

But Bayless is taking it all in stride.

As head of an organization whose annual budget has grown from $10,000 to over $600,000, and whose staff has increased from one part-time to five full-time and 40 or more part-time employees in 20 years, Bayless understands how big the task is.

‘Wizard of Oz’ cast facts:

▪ Over 130 aspiring actors, singers, and dancers tried out for 39 roles. The cast ranges in age from 5 to 70-plus.

▪ Bayless is directing the show and Kevin Campbell, her Sedgefield Junior High and Myers Park High School classmate some 40 years ago, is playing the Wizard.

▪ Willow, a rescue dog, owned by stage manager Cassie Prodan, is playing the part of Toto.

▪ Jake Yara plays the Lion alongside his munchkin son, Kodi, and munchkin daughter, Shannon.

▪ Wicked Witch Vanessa Davis performs with her son, Jackson, a munchkin.

▪ Marvin Ridge High School teacher Winston Sims, the Scarecrow, is performing with some of his students who are playing, among other roles Dorothy (Ellen Bailey), farmhands, Ozians, and trees.

Want to go?

“Wizard of Oz” runs weekends June 12-28. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, and $12 for kids 10 and under. Tickets are available at the box office, Fullwood Theatre in the Matthews Community Center, 100 McDowell St., Matthews, or www.matthewsplayhouse.com

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