For ‘Wizard of Oz’ star, there really is no place like home

12:03 p.m Monday, July 17, 2017 Austin360
Tamir Kalifa
Members of “The Wizard of Oz” cast perform during the 59th annual Zilker Summer Musical presented by Zilker Theatre Productions. TAMIR KALIFA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When she was 10 years old, Hannah Roberts stepped onto the stage at the Zilker Hillside Theater and looked out into the crowd.

The native Austinite didn’t really know what a musical was when her mom suggested she audition for the part of Amaryllis in “The Music Man,” but after a summer of playing her, Roberts was certain: The stage was where she was meant to be.

This summer, she’s stepping onto that same stage again, but now she’s doing it in ruby slippers — she’s Dorothy in this year’s Zilker Summer Musical, “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The first time I sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ on that stage I had a moment like, ‘Wow, how did I get here?’” said Roberts, now 18. “I’m on the same stage, but I’m a completely different person. I’ve learned so much about theater since when I was 10.”

Zilker Theatre Productions’ summer musical has been an Austin tradition for 59 years, and in many ways it’s a microcosm of everything that makes summer in Austin special. Children squeal as they catapult themselves down the grassy hill, teenagers lounge on towels after a chilly dip in Barton Springs, and multigenerational families gather on quilts to eat fried chicken as the sun begins to sink. Because the show is always free, the primary concern for audience members is to arrive early enough to snag a good spot on the hill.

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“Once you come, you’ll probably make it a tradition,” said producer Peter Beilharz, flanked by a cow and a chicken coop — props for the production’s Kansas set — backstage before a recent show. “What’s really important to know is that this is being provided for free.”

After every performance, when the cast greets the crowd, Roberts finds herself surrounded by enthusiastic young fans who wrap their arms around her blue-and-white dress and say they want to be just like her when they grow up.

“The idea of singing in front of 2,000 people is really nerve-wracking at first, but it’s not as scary when you realize you’re making a lot of tiny little kids happy,” she said. “They give me big hugs and they’re all so excited. They embrace the show, and they’re not afraid to say hi.”

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Roberts savors these moments because she knows they’re fleeting. This fall, the Westlake High School graduate will follow her own yellow brick road to Otterbein University in Ohio, where she’ll study musical theater.

“I kind of feel like Dorothy’s journey is similar to mine. She’s a girl who wants better, wants bigger,” Roberts said. “I think I relate to her always wanting more.”

Still, Roberts knows her last performance as Dorothy in August won’t be easy.

She’ll stand on the same stage she’s graced since she was 10 and look into that same big crowd as the show’s final words ring out across a hillside covered in a blanket of stars: “There’s no place like home.”

Roberts, of all people, knows that’s true.

“It’s going to be a very heartfelt performance,” she said. “It’s going to be so hard to say goodbye. It’s an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

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