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Marty the Flying Monkey is itchin’ to kick some ass.

Seconds before the first swarm of 50 Munchkin wannabes migrates into a National Theatre rehearsal hall—actually a converted fourth-floor “Liquor Bar”—little person Marty Klebba, who also plays a Lollipop Kid and a crow in the traveling production of The Wizard of Oz, is officially throwing down the gauntlet. His beef is with Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, Howard Stern’s strangely lovable but constantly shitfaced buddy. Klebba calls the besotted little person “a disgrace.”

During an appearance on Stern’s radio show, Klebba, who also considers himself a Friend of Howard, “challenged Hank to get in the ring and get it on,” Klebba says. “But [Hank] won’t ever come into the studio when I’m there.” The 29-year-old stage actor, who sports a shiny hoop in each ear, a wide black Oakland Raiders tattoo on his right arm, and a tough-guy frame, is trying to persuade Stern to set up a wrestling/boxing battle with Hank on pay-per-view television. Unfortunately, the negotiations have been slow: “It’s going to take so long for Hank to detox,” Klebba sighs, “it could be a mess.”

In ’97, Klebba—who’s been performing in Radio City’s Christmas show for the past several years—landed a role in a heavily hyped Wizard of Oz production at Madison Square Garden, which featured Roseanne as the Wicked Witch of the West. “I love Roseanne,” says Klebba, never missing a chance to drop the name of a fellow celeb. “She was great. Just really cool.” Since then, Klebba has been an Oz regular. Mickey Rooney, playing the great and powerful man behind the curtain, is the featured performer in this production, but seeing that the geriatric thespian is now relatively buzz-free, Klebba just calls him “a sweet man” and leaves it at that.

Besides his role in the current production—in which he spends almost 30 minutes dangling high in the rafters in a variety of harnesses both on- and offstage—Klebba runs the Munchkin auditions, taking on the unenviable task of weeding through about 400 8- to 14-year-old kids (all under 4-foot-10) in the span of a few hours to dig out the winners of six walk-on roles. “This could be somebody’s shining moment,” Klebba says sweetly, forgetting about that tooted bastard Hank for a moment. “But we also want them to have fun.”

Klebba also says he prefers the incessantly hammy young’uns—as tiring as they may be—to the little people he deals with in the business: “Every little person in the world thinks they can act,” Klebba says, with more than a hint of disgust. “So they all go out to Los Angeles. I think they’re all with the same agency, too.”

(Although he’s had his fill of his fame-hungry diminutive brethren, Klebba is outspoken when it comes to the lack of respect directed at little people: “Calling a little person a midget is like calling a black person a…well, you know. I guess if you wanted to get politically correct here in Washington, you could also say ‘vertically challenged.’”)

As Klebba segues back into praising the kids and their professionalism, his eyes get wide—and his stance steadies—as the initial throng of junior actors, sans parents, plows up the carpeted stairs and prepares to wow ’em with some acting, some dancing, and some endless—and I do mean endless—crooning of perhaps the most annoying number in musical history.

Ding Dong, the witch is dead.

Which old witch? The wicked witch!

Ding Dong, the wicked witch is dead!

Wake up, you sleepy head,

Rub your eyes, get out of bed.

Wake up, the wicked witch is dead!

“Are you guys ready to have fun?”

“Yes!”

“Are you guys ready to sing?”

“Yes!”

“It doesn’t sound like it. Are you sure you guys are ready to sing?”

“YES!!!”

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And so, with Klebba leading them, the first batch of actors—undoubtedly primed by moms and dads waiting impatiently in the second-floor lounge to smile, smile, smile—breaks into today’s featured song. It’s a charming moment at first, and yes, when you first listen to the untrained but enthusiastic chorus members howling their rapidly pumping hearts out, the song is catchy, too. But then these kids, who traveled here last Monday from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and the District, sing the same damn tune again and again and again, all the time watching with pained plastered grins as the easygoing Flying Monkey demonstrates the dance steps.

Eventually, Klebba breaks the crew down to groups of five at a time (with the rest of the mob still singing and dancing in the background). A panel of three judges—grading on enthusiasm, movement, strength of voice, appearance, and the ominous “other comments”—murmur and nod as the numbered kids get their main chance to shine.

It’s remarkable how a child can seem talented and unabashed when surrounded by his or her equally hyper peers, but how, once the herd is thinned and the spotlight—in this case, a flurry of television cameras—is ablaze, his motor skills become a crap shoot. As a pretty brunette in a flowery Laura Ashley dress and Jodie Foster-in-Taxi Driver makeup screams and shimmies, her neighbor in the line, a giggling boy in a skirt-length Juwan Howard jersey, simply gawks at her. Young love can take such a hellish toll.

The first 50 are not even close to being through, but pianist Bob Boguslaw, who got lassoed into taking this gig by folks at the National Theatre, already looks as if he could use a cocktail or three. He figures he’ll play “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead” “about 250 times” today. His hangdog expression suggests there’s most certainly a noose around here somewhere.

Ding Dong, the witch is dead.

Which old witch? The wicked witch!

Ding Dong, the wicked witch is dead!

Wake up, you sleepy head,

Rub your eyes, get out of bed.

Wake up, the wicked witch is dead!

On the National Theatre’s second floor, otherwise known as the parental flop-sweat zone, oxygen is a luxury. Dozens upon dozens of stage moms fluff up their young, scrubbing invisible smudges off of faces and going over those grating lyrics one last time. A young chanteuse dolled up in a ridiculous fairy-godmother outfit snaps her gum in front of a painted portrait of Helen Hayes, while her friend, no more than 10, scrutinizes the front page of the Washington Post. Neither looks as if she wants to be bothered—at least not by a print reporter, that is.

Kimberly Resua, 9, and Kasey Dezelick, 8, have just finished their tryout and are virtually breathless as they relay the exciting goings-on to their parents. Both claim to have been “a little nervous, but not really,” and boldly pronounce that learning the singing and dancing was a cakewalk. “Oh, I’m used to it,” dance-class showoff Dezelick sniffs, giving her ponytail a bold flip and wandering closer to a television reporter.

Leaning against a wall and looking much more relaxed than his fellow guardians is Calvin Jenkins, whose son, Calvin Jr., is taking Klebba’s lead as we speak. With a ball cap pulled low and his child’s jacket slung over his arm, Jenkins is the epitome of cool—at first. But as he gushes more and more about his offspring’s burgeoning talent—not to mention his chances of working side by side with the legendary Rooney—the father can’t help but sniff the excitement. “His teacher called me and said, ‘You’ve got to sign Calvin up for this audition! You’ve got to find him a school of the arts!’” Jenkins says with a laugh. “You know, he’s in every play at school.”

Soon, Calvin Jr. bounds down the steps, spots his pop, and squeezes his way through the myriad bodies. His father seems a lot more anxious than he does, but the old man lets his son have his moment. As Cal Jr. spills the details to his father—”Marty was a really cool guy!”—another single-file line of 50 dreamers scrambles up the steps. Klebba, of course, is waiting for them. He is still grinning, still singing, and still dancing. There is no sign of sweat on his brow. Needless to say, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf doesn’t have a chance. CP

The Wizard of Oz runs Feb. 25 to March 14 at the National Theatre. Call (800) 447-7400 for ticket information.