3/9/2018 THE WIZARD OF OZ Alliance Theatre Family Series
****½ ( A )
It’s always a risk “messing with” an iconic story. The 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that any variation from it seems almost sacrilegious. Author Gregory Maguire has made a mark telling “grown-up” variations on the tale (Wicked and its sequels), but he is the exception – his plots are so far removed from the classic film (and books) that they seem another story altogether.
Then there are the various stage adaptations that use the Harold Arlen / Yip Harburg songs from the movie. Make it too similar, and you get a “copycat” production. Make it too different and you get a “what were they thinking?” reaction.
Which brings me to the Alliance Family Series production of The Wizard of Oz, originally produced in 2012, now revived with a twister full of new ideas. Heavily edited to a brisk 75 minutes, this adaptation drops a lot of what are sure to be SOMEONE’s favorite lines or songs or moments. On top of that, director Rosemary Newcott and her design team have again dressed the production in the trappings of “folk art,” using puppetry, no extras, and “found objects” to create a totally new Oz experience.
And, it is so much better than the 2012 staging (not that that one was bad -- I did rate it a "B"), that I am unable to do my usual sloth-y trick of just copying the earlier review.
Dropped this time were the "Altoids" woodsman costume (good riddance) and the dollhouse farmhouse. Added are an on-stage bluegrass band (banjo, fiddle, and washboard -- now playing the woodsman's thorax) that gives the familiar songs (arranged by Peter Howard) new life and new significance. Also added was a modern-tech backdrop that. for some odd reason, does not at all "clash" with the "folk art" feel of everything else. It's just part of the magic of Oz!
Once again, I really liked the puppetry, the replacement of all the Munchkin Extras with a number of very cleverly constructed marionettes and puppets. I liked the Toto hand puppet, and how it kept jumping from character to character. And I REALLY liked the “twister,” a thing-of-beauty-and-joy-to-behold that combined old-fashioned stagecraft and shadow-puppetry with a few modern effects.
As in 2012, what really sells this production is the marvelous and sparkling cast. Led by Niki Badua's plucky and resourceful Dorothy, it’s really a nine-member ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles (and puppets and instruments) and “knock them out of the ball park.” Jeremy Aggers is a rubber-limbed Scarecrow who spends more time on the ground than on his feet, Jeremiah Parker Hobbs is the sensitive (if heartless) Tin Man, and Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant is a nicely fearful Lion, whose real bravery sneaks up on us as much as it does on him. Also on hand are Ellen McQueen (the Wicked Witch), Scott DePoy (Uncle Henry), Molly Coyne (Aunt Em and Glinda), Rob Lawhon (the Wizard) and Lyndsay Ricketson (as a bajillion supporting characters). Together, they are a perfect ensemble, dripping with cooperation and teamwork.
As before, Kat Conley has put together a nicely “raw” “folk art” set that pays homage to the concept without losing sight of the story, succeeding in making the modern razzle-dazzle seem an integral part of the rough-hewn farmhouse (helped immensely by Ben Rawson's colorful Lighting Design). Musical Director Phillip DePoy has led the cast in their new-fangled old-school recreations of all the familiar songs.
This production, as a whole, had me Over the Rainbow with excitement.
So, will your own munchkin like the show? A lot depends on how “indoctrinated” they are with the classic film. I suspect it will appeal more to the under-ten ages (and Saturday's full house was awash with smiling and attentive small faces). As to all you non-Munchkins, I say, give it chance! It may surprise you!
Just pay no attention to that expectation behind the cultural paradigm!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #AllianceWizardOfOz)