When Cliff Gabor arrived at Roosevelt in 2003, the school had not performed a musical for 40 years.
“The kids here didn’t even know what musical theater was,” said Gabor, an assistant principal at the school. But with the support of Principal Alejandra Alvarez, the annual musical has grown in the six years since then, and this year’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” strengthened by a $100,000 grant from AARP, is the biggest yet. Gabor estimates that between cast and crew – which include set-builders, makeup, costume, prop and tech people -- 100 to 150 people are involved.
The production stretches across boundaries in more ways than one. In addition to Roosevelt students, the cast includes elementary school students from Peterson and Volta, Roosevelt’s feeder schools, and Taft and Von Steuben high schools. In honor of Lincoln’s bicentennial this year, Gabor wrote a brief prologue to the play exploring the link between the play’s story and Abraham Lincoln, prompting the people at AARP to put him in touch with the Abraham Lincoln Centre on the South Side. Students from the Centre’s youth program will also be in the play. In that prologue, the role of the president will be played by a Roosevelt counselor.
“We at Roosevelt believe that this musical theater program can be an agent of social change that will revitalize and strengthen the greater Chicago community, by bringing people together and fostering intergenerational relations and civic engagement,” Gabor said.
The cast includes special education students and numerous students who are not native English speakers, reflecting the diversity of a school where 30 different languages are spoken at home.
Yawa Adavo, a sophomore at Roosevelt, came with her family to the United States from Togo two years ago. She had never done theater before, though she has a background in dance. She plays a monkey, a bird and a villager in the production.
“I love it so much,” she said. “Everything, just everything about it.”
“The Wizard of Oz” opens at Roosevelt’s Kamen Alumni Hall on Wednesday, April 29, at 7 p.m., with a special pre-show reception at 6 p.m. The show runs through Saturday, May 2, with performances on Thursday and Friday nights and a matinee and evening show Saturday. Admission is $5; children under five are free. Roosevelt will also host two daytime performances for its feeder elementary schools on Thursday and Friday at 10 a.m., which are free.