INDIANAPOLIS — As she performs nightly in Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre's production of "The Wizard of Oz," Alexandria Van Paris is reflective about her own family's journey along the Yellow Brick Road.
"'The Wizard of Oz' holds a dear place in my heart because it was one of the first shows that my dad and brother worked on," the Avon High School graduate recalled of the 2006 production at Hendricks Civic Theatre, in which she was cast as Dorothy. "I got to play her, alongside of my father, Jeff Van Paris, as the Scarecrow."
While that in itself would be a special experience, what was happening off stage was even more dramatic - and far from the merry and fanciful world of Oz.
Her father, a teacher at Clarks Creek Elementary School in Plainfield, had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year. Although far less common in men than women, the disease has similar prognoses, depending on the stage, according to the American Cancer Society.
"I had a mastectomy, and then followed up with a full round of chemotherapy and then radiation, as by the time it was diagnosed it had spread to the nodes," Jeff said. A longtime performer, he auditioned for the Scarecrow - his dream role - right after his last treatment.
"Nothing was going to stop me from auditioning," he said.
But his journey along the Yellow Brick Road would be filled with more challenges than what the audiences could see.
"During the rehearsal process, I received 28 rounds of radiation," Jeff said. This treatment resulted in large, open blisters on his chest, which made it painful to flop around the stage as the flimsy Scarecrow. He wore a net-like sleeve over his torso to keep gauze in place over the blisters.
As if that weren't enough, Jeff choreographed the entire production - with a cast of more than 100.
"Who can do that with such grace, ease, vim, and passion while going through treatments for breast cancer?" Alexandria asked. "I don't know anyone else besides my father that could've done it like he did. He is my hero. And not only did he choreograph the show extremely well, he dealt with the cancer so well it was inspiring. His way of coping with the pain and fear and disease was laughter."
Those attending "The Wizard of Oz" at Beef & Boards will notice there is much humor in the script, which is full of one-liners not necessarily found in the film. It was in humor that Jeff found strength.
"He pulled the 'cancer card' all the time, making us all able to laugh along with him and support him in such a happy, and comfortable environment for not only his family but for all the friends and supporters," Alexandria said.
But like the Scarecrow had Dorothy's support, Jeff need only look by his side to see his loving daughter every step of the way.
"My dad is amazing and an inspiration to me and many others," Alexandria, now a graduate of Ball State University, said. "And when I think back of when I really started to appreciate my dad for more than just being a great father, I think of our production of 'The Wizard of Oz' that I was so lucky to get to do alongside of him and to help him through his tough time while loving him as his daughter."
Jeff not only made it through the production, he excelled at his dream role. Nominated that year by the Encore Association for "Best Actor" and "Best Dancer" for the role, (as well as "Best Choreographer"), he won "Best Dancer."
But the greatest reward for him was to be on stage with his daughter.
"I especially loved playing the role opposite Alex," Jeff said. "We had done theater together for 10 years, and to play opposite my daughter was an experience I will never forget, and will cherish always."
Now, as he watches Alexandria on stage at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre in the show that symbolizes their own journey together, Jeff is healthy and happy - even after another scare.
"I was diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago and had surgery, but we were told it was not related in any way to the breast cancer," Jeff said, jokingly referring to himself now as an "Equal Opportunity Cancer Survivor."
Alexandria is returning to Beef & Boards after an eight-year hiatus. She's previously been seen in productions of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "A Christmas Carol," "Annie," and "A Beef & Boards Christmas." In the current production, she reunites with former cast mates Kenny Shepard, Deb Wims, and Doug King.
"We are enjoying seeing Alex back on the Beef & Boards stage, and especially sharing the stage with old friends," Jeff said of himself and his wife, Jan Van Paris.
"Doing this show again as part of the ensemble, and getting to watch Lisa Bark and Doug King do Dorothy and Scarecrow, is so fun," Alexandria said. "Because as I watch them, I remember how wonderful and blessed I was to be able to do that alongside my father during such a hard time for all of us."
"The Wizard of Oz" continues through July 15 at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road. Tickets range from $37 to $60 and include Chef Odell Ward's family-friendly buffet, coffee, tea, and lemonade. There are $10 discounts for children ages 3 to 15. Discounts are also available for groups of 20 or more.
For reservations, call the Beef & Boards Box Office at 872-9664. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays. For more information, including a show schedule, visit the website at www.beefandboards.com.