Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Always popular with audiences of all ages since its premiere in summer stock during the summer of 1942 at the St. Louis Municipal Opera, THE WIZARD OF OZ was first presented at Melody Top in 1977. Director and designer Stuart Bishop adapted Frank Gabrielson's licensed script to more closely follow the classic film's plot. "The Jitterbug" was added as a production number in Melody Top's second act of the production, along with "Evening Star," with music by Peter DeRose and lyrics by Mitchell Parish, for the character of Dorothy. "While You Are Young," composed by Harold Arlen and Jack Yellen for their 1931 Broadway musical YOU SAID IT, was performed early in this show by Stubby Kaye (Zeke), Hickory (Cris Groenendaal) and Huck (Clyde Laurents). The photos on this page are from Kurt Knuth, who played the Munchkin Coroner.

Off to see the Wizard? Good idea!

By Dominique Paul Noth, Milwaukee Journal Drama Critic, August 3, 1977

We're off to praise a Wizard – THE WIZARD OF OZ that opened Tuesday night at the Melody Top.

Stuart Bishop may have had his downs this season, but he has designed and directed this production to make it look as if MGM, back in 1939, was the one that had the tight budget and the limited creative means.

Some theatres that take the dialogue and Harold Arlen tunes from that Judy Garland movie musical (and reinstate a few songs MGM had to cut) rely on blind audience devotion to the original to carry the results "Over the Rainbow."

Bishop and company do not avoid duplicating some aspects of the film – including dance steps, transition music and even the inflections in some dialogue. But he has been wise to turn what was essentially a cinematic experience into a theatrical one – a carnival of stage effects including a strobe light cyclone, a humanized yellow brick road, forest fog, dancing poppies and some explosions.

Special effects are used around and above the stage while oodles of Oz oddities trundle down the aisles. The costumes, by Jan Valentine and Ann Bruskiewitz, drip humor and care right down to the green sneakers on the Emerald City marching band.

Musical director Donald Yap keeps vigor and unity among the orchestra, the pop-in chorus and the children, who ding-dong that the Witch is dead. These 20 Munchkins may reveal (through some darting looks at friends in the audience) that their natural habitat is Milwaukee, but you could not ask for a more trustworthy, athletic and just plain cute bunch of child troupers.

There are some disappointments. It takes all the flash powder in the Top's arsenal to help TV celebrity Nancy Kulp seem an adequately cruel cackler as the Wicked Witch of the West. And it is hard to separate the bumbles of the Wizard of Oz from the bumbles of the actor who plays him, Jerry Tullos.

But Clyde Laurents relishes the chance to sing out, flop about and just generally make the Scarecrow endearing. Cris Groenendaal, as the Tin Man, and Kathy Taylor, as Glinda the Good Witch, somehow manage to sound and act like their movie counterparts (Jack Haley, Billie Burke) without being copycats – and both sing with a power all their own.

Because no one has told Marsha Kramer that it is almost inescapable for adults to play Dorothy Gale without making her too sweet, she ignores that worry with an eager smile. She makes us ignore it, too, with the pleasure of her concentration and the punch of her big voice.

Nancy Kulp and Stubby Kaye

Stubby Kaye, stepping into the paws of the movie's incomparable Bert Lahr, treats the Cowardly Lion as the vaudeville turn it is, with some patented comic prances of his own.

The show is a sparkler that will send you out not only humming, but oohing. The scurrying squads behind the scenes deserve a salute.

But so does the unsung hero of this musical – E.Y. Harburg, the lyricist. Listen again to those words and you will be treated to a gentle wit, clever rhymes and joyous alliteration that make troubles melt like lemon drops.

OZ makes awesome puffs of magic

By Jay Joslyn, Milwaukee Sentinel, August 3, 1977

Since laughter is the finest tonic of all, the Melody Top Theatre will be the healthiest spot in the neighborhood for the next two weeks.

In an extravagant exercise of imagination, the popular summer theatre has outdone itself in producing good feelings and pleasant memories with the wondrous production of THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Updating the turn-of-the-century Frank Baum story, director Stuart Bishop has created a stage version of the Judy Garland film classic.

This is an especially difficult task. Not only do the limitations of the arena stage resist bending to film effects, but Bishop bucks complete recall by the audience as well.

However, the necessary compromise he has reached makes an evening full of laughter and awesome puffs of magic and fantasy.

Petite Marsha Kramer is a delightful Dorothy with a pert vulnerability and lovely musicality.

Her trio of buddies are top notch. Clyde Laurents as the Scarecrow, Cris Groenendaal as the Tin Woodman and, especially, the irresistible Stubby Kaye as the Cowardly Lion personify the stuff dreams are made of.

While these players and the sundry corps of adorable children and graceful dancers produce and enjoy a great deal of fun for the audience and themselves, the person apparently enjoying the most pleasure is Nancy Kulp.

As the Wicked Witch of the West, the TV comedienne appears periodically out of puffs of smoke to snarl great threats and dire predictions with supreme relish.

Bishop also had a wonderful time as the show's designer, since he color coordinated things to the hilt and set up a showcase of effects.

The show may be overproduced, since the dancing is minimal and the usually polished choral work is haphazard.

The Wizard of Oz Foursome

The immortal foursome from THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1977: Cris Groenendaal as the Tin Woodman, Stubby Kaye as the Cowardly Lion, Marsha Kramer as Dorothy and Clyde Laurents as the Scarecrow.

THE WIZARD OF OZ Cast of Characters

Aunt Em:Dorsey Vogt
Uncle Henry:Nathan Davis
Zeke:Stubby Kaye
Dorothy:Marsha Kramer
Hickory:Cris Groenendaal
Huck:Clyde Laurents
Miss Gulch:Nancy Kulp
Professor Marvel:Jerry Tullos
The Cyclone:Judith Ann Conte
Glinda the Good Witch:Kathy Taylor
The Mayor of the Munchkins:Bill Umland
Munchkin Lawyer:John Jahnke
Munchkin Coroner:Kurt Knuth
The Wicked Witch of the West:Nancy Kulp
The Yellow Brick Road:Joe Billone
The Scarecrow:Clyde Laurents
The Tin Woodman:Cris Groenendaal
The Cowardly Lion:Stubby Kaye
Leaders of the Winged Monkeys:Kurt Ida and Eddie Dudek
The Guardian of the Gate:Jerry Tullos
The Soldier with the Green Whiskers:Jerry Tullos
The Great Oz:Jerry Tullos

The Lullabye League: Shannon Kelly, Stefani Kracht, Jane Potter, Bobbi Jo Schneider.

The Lollypop Guild: Todd Erickson, Paul John Miller and Ricky Reusch.

The Company: Mib Bramlette, Marianne Challis, Judith Ann Conte, Jeanne Krempp, Nancy McCloud, Ruth Anne McCoy, Diane Nicole, Kathy Taylor, Jan Wahl, Gary Barker, Joe Billone, Eddie Dudek, Robert Frisch, Michael Gallagher, Rudy Hogenmiller, Kurt Ida and Dan Webber.

The Munchkins: Claudia Adams, Cynthia Adams, Lisa Dentici, Megan Dzian, Shannon Kelly, Stefani Kracht, Jane Potter, Holly Anne Riekkoff, Heather Anne Riekkoff, Bobbi Jo Schneider, Michael Altman, Todd Erickson, John Jahnke, Kurth Knuth, Paul John Miller, Ricky Reusch, Joe Schmittner, Bill Umland, Jeff Umland and David Voll.

The Wizard of OzClick on the image to the left to download a complete souvenir brochure from THE WIZARD OF OZ, courtesy of John Nickolaus. Inside are shots of the cast, along with their performing biographies. There is also a piece on the history of the story, from its original novel to various stage and screen adaptations. Most interesting is an image from a 1962 production that shows a "sky hook" being employed during the storm scene to swing aloft the kitchen section of the farm house with Dorothy inside it – singing "Over the Rainbow" – while floating in space!

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