Ask Nicholas Pearson for the scene he likes best in "The Wizard of Oz" and his response is immediate.
"I love doing 'King of the Forest,'" said Pearson, who plays the Cowardly Lion in the national touring production of Frank Baum's classic story coming to Proctors for two shows Saturday and Sunday. "That number is my favorite part of the show. I feel like I get to break the fourth wall several times during the song because people all know it so well. Everybody loves it."
The Cowardly Lion is one of three characters -- and Toto, too -- who accompany a young girl, Dorothy Gale, on her way to the Emerald City to see the Wizard of Oz. The idea is to help get Dorothy and her small dog back to their family farm in Kansas. Along with the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy has convinced the Scarecrow and the Tin Man to join her on her journey and keep her safe from the evil intentions of the Wicked Witch.
The 1939 movie musical with Judy Garland is based on a book by children's author L. Frank Baum from three decades earlier. The stage production follows the movie closely, but the 2011 version adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has a few added characters and musical numbers. For Pearson, the opportunity to portray the Cowardly Lion, a character made so memorable by Bert Lahr's performance in the movie, is an honor.
"The 'King of the Forest' was written for him to showcase his comedic capabilities," said Pearson. "I have to pay homage to a performance that is so iconic, so I try to give his portrayal a wink and then throw in a few things of my own, my twist on things. One thing I realized during rehearsals is that the Lion really does idolize Dorothy, so I throw in a few things that I feel are grounded in the character and completely within the realm of the character. I don't have to try to do Bert Lahr. That would be impossible. I pay homage to him, but then I try to have some fun with it like any actor would. But I certainly wouldn't try anything that would take away from the character."
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Pearson said "The Wizard of Oz" remains popular among family audiences for two big reasons.
"I think the kids love the characters and the story, and for the parents and grandparents it reminds them of their childhood," he said. "It reminds them how life is easier when you're a kid, although Dorothy does go through some crazy stuff when she's in the Land of Oz. But I think the nostalgia factor brings people into the theater. They're expecting certain things when they come to see 'The Wizard of Oz,' and I think we deliver on that and give them a little more. We have a jitterbug number that was cut from the original movie, and a couple of more added scenes that help us develop a character that you already know pretty well."
A 2008 graduate of the University of Miami, Ohio, Pearson was preparing himself for life as a music teacher in college. But as he dabbled in the college choir and drama club, things changed.
"When I was 2 and a half, I danced for my grandfather, he applauded, and I said, 'I like this,'" remembered Pearson. "Then, at some point in college, I realized that everything I ever did in my life that was exciting had music involved. It wasn't until my third year I declared as a music major, and then I was going to become a music teacher. I was student-teaching and telling my students how they had to go for their passion. 'What's the last thing you think about when you go to bed at night?' I would ask them. So I finally took my own advice and went to New York."
While he feels right at home in musical theater, Pearson wasn't always so comfortable singing.
"I always loved singing when I was a kid, but I didn't feel like I had the natural talent to do it," he said. "Some people would tell me I had a great voice, but I didn't really know what that meant. Then in college I auditioned for the glee club, and the director took me aside and told me how to get a little more air. His support got me into the choir. He was a great teacher who made singing make sense for me."
Joining Pearson onstage as Dorothy will be Cincinnati native Kalie Kaimann, who played the part for the Children's Theatre of New York before joining the national tour of the show last year. Toto, meanwhile, is played by Murphy.
"He honestly is the most chill dog that ever was," said Pearson. "He never gets rambunctious. When we do two shows on Saturday, he might get a little tired. But he is amazing. He's a rescue dog from Arizona and he gives everyone a little love."
'The Wizard of Oz'
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $80-$25
MORE INFO: (518) 346-6204, or visit www.proctors.org