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Singing on a rainbow

UVic student in running for spot in CBC television's search for next Dorothy

If there's one song Christie Stewart can't get enough of, it's Over the Rainbow.

The University of Victoria theatre student has lost count of how many times she's sung the Harold Arlen classic. It now looks like she'll be singing it a lot more as she skips down the yellow brick road to a potential gig in the merry old land of Oz.

Stewart, 20, is one of Canada's Top 20 potential Dorothys selected from hundreds of hopefuls nationwide competing to land the starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Canadian production of The Wizard of Oz that opens in Toronto in December.

"We all just went nuts!" said Stewart, recalling her reaction in Toronto last month when Daryn Jones, host of Over the Rainbow, the CBC reality series chronicling the star search, told her and 19 other finalists they had become Canada's Top 20.

Hours after singing Over the Rainbow again, and Judy Garland's classic The Trolley Song, the student about to enter her fourth year in UVic's acting specialization program was called onstage with other potential Dorothys to get the lowdown.

"He said something like, 'Thanks, it's been great. We hope you had a lot of fun but unfortunately the judges had to make some hard decisions.' " she recalled. "It made us all feel and think, that's it, and then he said, 'You're our Top 20!' "

The Vernon-raised performer who played the lead in a local production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and the Mayor of Munchkin Land in The Wizard of Oz at age eight has grown accustomed to endless waiting during the audition process.

It began when she decided to attend an open casting call in Vancouver after hearing about it four days earlier.

"I thought, 'How fun would that be? Why the heck not?' " she recalled. "I went on a whim. It was very last-minute."

Six girls were screened at a time, said Stewart, who was asked to sing a song, was stopped halfway and then asked to sing Over the Rainbow. A few notes in, she was stopped, asked to sing scales and sent to see casting director Stephanie Gorin.

Noting Stewart was studying at UVic, Gorin asked her what she'd do if she had the chance to play Dorothy.

"This is obviously an amazing experience and what I'm going to school for, so I said I'd drop everything and go for it," Stewart said.

"She said, 'Well you just might have to because I think you could do this,' and she handed me the golden ticket."

The "admit one" golden ticket to Oz meant Stewart had been selected as one of 100 entitled to a callback.

Now that she's made it to the Top 20, she'll go to the "Dorothy farm" - a musical theatre boot camp in Toronto in August.

If she makes the cut, she'll become one of 10 finalists who will compete live on Over the Rainbow on CBC Sunday nights starting in September. The list will be narrowed to two finalists determined through online voting and another finalist chosen by the judges, culminating in a final showdown with Lloyd Webber himself in attendance.

Stewart, who with sisters Lisa, 17, and Stephanie, 23, began dancing and took voice lessons at a young age before competing provincially, is no stranger to auditions. Under the tutelage of Vernon vocal coach Charity Van Gameren, the Mackenzie, B.C.-born performer appeared with Lights of Broadway, a musical theatre company co-founded by her family.

"We're definitely a musical-theatre family," said Stewart, whose other musical experiences included playing Dorothy in the musical The Wiz, an ugly stepsister in Cinderella, Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in Peter Pan, Diana in Anne of Green Gables, Tommy in Pippi Long stocking and Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast.

Although the Victoriabased actress has also appeared in Mainstage productions at UVic, including Yerma, and two Fringe festival shows, The Pink Shoelaces and Struwwelpeter, it's musical theatre that rocks her world.

"I've always been an outgoing, quirky person, I guess," she says when asked why she figures it's such a good fit for her. "My mom just threw me in there, and I was up for anything. I was loving it, and thriving."

Kerrie Stewart said her talent and enthusiasm for theatre was obvious since she was very young.

"It happened sooner than we thought," she said, referring to her daughter's potential breakout.

"She's so gifted and funny and such a good actor with a crystal voice. She was happily taking the long route and wanting to do grad work in musical theatre, and out of the blue this happens.

"I had no doubt she'd be phenomenal; it's just a matter of whether things stack up for her."

Her daughter admits she didn't realize how big a deal the Dorothy audition process would be.

"Normally you go into an audition saying, 'If I don't get this one, I'll get another,' but this is the big one," she said. "This is life-changing."

If she meets Andrew Lloyd Webber, she isn't sure how she'd react.

"I think I'd just start crying," she said. "I was sitting at a bus stop and I saw that Chemainus Theatre was doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

It said 'Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber,' and it was a reminder of how huge he is."

Whether she lands the iconic girl-from-Kansas role or not, Stewart won't abandon her musical-theatre ambitions.

"It's always been my ultimate goal - to be in musicals," she said. "It's just a case of with who and when and where."

mreid@timescolonist.com