What: Actor Aaron Fried’s transformation from Zeke the farmhand to the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Where: At the Citi Wang Theatre, Boston, through Sunday.
Early on during a Saturday matinee of “The Wizard of Oz,” a tornado starts to blow, both onstage and beneath it. Sweeping away Auntie Em’s dusty Kansas farmhouse to make room for the Technicolor land of Oz, it turns out, takes more hard work than magic, and no one feels the breeze at their backs more than Fried and the team that turns him from Zeke into the Cowardly Lion.
With the timer ticking after he’s spun offstage, Fried walks the long hall under the Citi Wang Theatre to his dressing room, where he dons the Lion’s tail, padded chest, and furry suit. His calm belies the frantic brass playing overhead, even as witches and Munchkins and Nigel, the cairn terrier starring as Toto, dart about between dressing rooms.
“At this point, we’ve had months and months of practice,” Fried says after the show. “Usually, in my dressing room, I’ll hang a show order, with the scenes and the song order, but for this production I actually put up a costume piece order, because it took a long time for me to get the order down.”
Fried has to hold his periscope tail under the low highway of pipes overhead as he struts from the dressing room back to makeup. (Other venues along the show’s tour, he says, had more stairs and smaller hallways, which make the Wang’s underbelly comparatively easy to navigate in clawed boots.) There, makeup artist Brittney Griffith paints on his eyes and flicks white powder on with a fat brush, her 100-plus shows-worth of experience showing in her sure hand.
The timelessness of the character gave the show’s design team more freedom in how to approach the Lion’s makeup. Besides working around Fried’s full beard, Griffith says, the biggest challenge is making those ideas possible in practice.
“The designer always wants something bigger, something better, something that’s going to take more time,” Griffith says. “With a tough change like that, you have to figure how to take what they want and make it something you can do in 4½ minutes.”
Fully feline and with his scene approaching, Fried doubles back to grab his nose and mane. About 15 minutes have passed since the tornado, and the transformation does seem almost magical.
“I know what a special place in so many people’s hearts the Lion has,” he says of his character.
Climbing the stairs with care, he’ll soon meet Dorothy and the others in the forest. It seems fitting earlier in the show when Dorothy, amazed by what’s around her, remarks in wonder: “People come and go so quickly here.”