OGDEN — In March 2020, the last show I saw before Utah shut down for the Covid-19 virus was the Ziegfeld Theater’s production of Newsies that was performed in English and American Sign Language. I was so impressed that it sustained me through many months of theatre drought. Therefore, when I learned that their 2022 season included another sign language production, I was excited to attend, even though The Wizard of Oz, a stage adaptation of the famous L. Frank Baum novel, is not a favorite of mine. I do, however, trust the experience of the Ziegfeld and the concept of building productions with Deaf actors and utilizing ASL. Thanks to the work of director Caleb Parry and assistant director and choreographer Bryan Andrews (who is a child of Deaf adults, or CODA), this production was an absolute delight.
Recently in my capacity as the UTBA vice president, I conducted a training on diversity in theatrical storytelling, and the representation by the cast and creative team at the Ziegfeld in this production was exactly what I was talking about. I am not a part of the Deaf community, though I did have the privilege in college of studying ASL and Deaf culture and history. Just like with any other community, there can be issues of lack of representation for Deaf individuals, including in the theatre. So, it was nice to see several Deaf actors graced the stage and truly shined in this production. Janelle Nielsen as Aunt Em/Glinda was an absolute treasure to watch, and a reminder that sign language is much more than just hands, but facial expressions, bodily movement, and a fantastic way to move a story along. Because the production is a musical, actress Hanna Wetzker served as Nielsen’s voice, and the two worked so seamlessly together that I was able to become lost in the imagery and forget that they were two entities. This was also able to happen with Britton Auman as the Scarecrow, voiced by Samuel Young. Auman’s physical comedy was impeccable, and the timing that he had with Young was outstanding. The rest of the cast worked so well together, and Andrews’s choreography incorporated the sign language with the dancing in very innovative ways.
One of my favorite moments was when Dorothy, played by Peyton Lozano, stopped singing in the iconic song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and performed a verse solely in American Sign Language. Much like having other shows that include parts of the dialogue delivered in other languages or dialects, having Dorothy render one of the most famous moments in the show gave the production authenticity as a production that is inclusive of the Deaf community. There were other moments throughout the show like this, and I truly welcomed it.
Another really standout part of this production was the costuming, which was most noticeable when the munchkins entered the stage. Costume designer Stephanie Colyar had fun vision, with the munchkins dressed in a fantastic array of color and style. The complex visual skeptical kept my eyes darting from one outfit to the other. I also want to comment on Dorothy’s dress, which makes small but fun changes throughout the show to show her going from black and white to color in an interesting way. I have not ever seen this approach in a production of The Wizard of Oz before.
Speaking of color and fun, the set design by Caleb Parry was nothing short of magical. When Dorothy first arrives in Oz, the change from Kansas to Oz is very pleasing. I liked the choices of bold colors and the way that both projections and actual set pieces were used. I also felt that the creativity of using classic art pieces intermixed with the set was interesting.
Each of the cast members had their own flare and fascinating takes on the roles that are well known to much of the audience, but with limited space to call out each of them, I want to mention that Taylor Haslem was impressive as the Wicked Witch. One of the reasons for this was her strong capability to incorporate her usage of sign language within her acting. She embodied the character of the witch, but she also mastered the art of telling the story with her hands, her face, and her whole body. I found her very intriguing to watch.
Because the Ziegfeld Theater has also recently announced their season for the next year, I was thrilled to see that there is another ASL show on tap for 2023. I applaud the producers at the Ziegfled Theater for increasing the diversity in the Utah theatre community in a way that no other company has done. The Ziegfeld Theater has proven that productions featuring Deaf actors are an excellent way to showcase the vast amount of talent and skill in the Utah theatre community. Including sign language in the performances of The Wizard of Oz enriches the show for both audience and actors and makes the play essential summer viewing.