OREM — The Wizard of Oz, everyone’s favorite story about a head injury, has returned to the SCERA stage in an enjoyable production that serves the script (adapted by John Kane) and score (by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg) well.
Director DeLayne Bluth Dayton has created a show that is faithful to the MGM film that the stage version is based on without mindlessly copying the movie. Dayton slipped bits of stage business (like during “Over the Rainbow”) and little jokes to liven up the action and present longtime fans of the show with something new. I also liked how she kept the show moving briskly; The Wizard of Oz has the potential to get bogged down with lengthy scene changes, but this production rarely encountered that problem.
What did the drain the production of energy was Tyne Valgardson Crockett‘s choreography, which was extremely basic, even by the standards of amateur theatre. As a result, “Merry Old Land of Oz” had a mechanical, soulless vibe, instead of showing the Emerald City as a cosmopolitan, exciting place for Dorothy and her friends to visit. Likewise, the dancing for “The Jitterbug” was staid and did not match the frenetic feel of the music. Where Crockett’s choreography was best was in the “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” sequence, which had an extremely disciplined child cast portraying the Munchkins with energy and excitement.
Ally Johnson provided a tender performance as Dorothy, and the emotional vulnerability (when she feels ignored at her Kansas farm, or when she was captured by the Wicked Witch of the West) was satisfying to watch. I also appreciated Johnson’s unique rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” which felt both wistful and hopeful. Additionally, Johnson was effective at showing Dorothy’s growing attachment to her new friends in Oz, which made their farewell scene particularly touching.
Among those friends, the most noteworthy was the Cowardly Lion, played by Andrew Walsh, who has a special knack for comedic timing. The first meeting with the wizard was especially funny, thanks to Walsh’s unrestrained antics. I was also surprised how much I liked his “King of the Forest,” a song that normally bores me, but this time was enjoyable, thanks to Walsh’s quirky mannerisms and great vibrato.
Rounding out the leading actors were TJ Thomas as the Tinman and Preston Harmon as the Scarecrow. Both actors had an affability that made it easy for Johnson and Walsh to build the camaraderie needed to make the show work. Harmon’s uneasiness on his feet and Thomas’s rigid movements were nice touches in their physicality that helped define their characters. Additionally, their songs “If I Only Had a Brain” and “If I Only Had a Heart” were nice reminders of why the songs still endure after nearly 80 years.
The supporting cast had a few weak links in it, though. The adult ensemble didn’t feel like a coherent and united group of actors creating a scene. I also had difficulty believing Samantha Frisby was old enough to play Dorothy’s Aunt Em, and there seemed to be no hint of a familial relationship among Aunt Em, Uncle Henry (played by Tim Mugridge), and Dorothy. But both Mugridge and Frisby were completely enjoyable in their Oz roles of the Emerald City Guard and Glinda, respectively.
Finally, no discussion of this version of The Wizard of Oz is complete without mentioning the uproarious Allison Books as the Wicked Witch of the West. Her high-pitched cackle was perfect for the role, and I got a kick out of the sheer glee that the Witch displayed when scaring Munchkins, Dorothy, or Dorothy’s friends. Moreover, Books is a natural comic, and she was capable of making me laugh several times at jokes that I had heard many times before.
The technical aspects of this production were a mixed bag. On the plus side, there were the projections, which unfortunately do not have a credited designer. The projections helped with the quick scene changes and were a wise choice, given the limited offstage space in the SCERA’s indoor theater. The Kansas projections were especially impressive, and the computer animation for the twister was pretty cool to see. However, the constant use of projections required the lighting (designed by Elizabeth Griffiths) in the show to be dim in order to prevent the lights from washing out the projections. Cole McClure‘s set also did not always serve as a suitable backdrop for the projections because the three concentric semicircles sometimes broke up the projection images and made it difficult to discern the entire projection image (especially in the Emerald City and in the wizard’s hall). On the other hand, I found most of the costumes (designed by Deborah Bowman) to be very satisfying, especially the dress for the Wicked Witch of the West, which had a visually interesting black bodice combined with a richly textured, reflective black dress.
But don’t let any of the imperfections dissuade you from seeing this production of The Wizard of Oz. The leads are just too good and the show too enjoyable for me to ignore how much fun I had watching it. This stage production has all the essential ingredients of a successful amateur production, and I am glad that served as my son’s first full-length introduction to this classic story.