I had the honor of watching a Standing Room Only theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz today, in Yelm, and thought to myself, if ever there was a production worthy of your review this would be it.
Now, I have to be honest and say that I am probably too critical to be a critic, since my expectation–as my students know, is for everyone to strive for perfection. I am also going to admit to being partial to a number of the performers since they belong to what is known as “Team Simpson.” However, this community theater production has a lot of heart, some serious brains, and a dash of courage, but did stray a bit too far from home.
Directed by the Drew Harvey Theater alumnus, Nancy Tribush Hillman, the show was not just an unpackaging of the 1939 Movie classic, since it includes musical numbers from Wicked and The Wiz to showcase the singing talents of the witches and the wizard. The alternate numbers were deftly included in the show in a way that they didn’t distract, but did take some courage to roll the dice and include them in the production since many in the audience could have easily sung along with the actors for much of the show. The brains included in the show were evident in the minimalist staging, stark backdrops, and clever makeup effects by Taylor Simpson. The children in the audience, and many adults around me were amazed at the transition made through makeup to the principals–Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch. It was also evident that some of the casting was brilliant–the Wicked Witch, Scarecrow, and Dorothy seemed born to play these roles, and some of the parts were played by actors making their theatrical debuts, including many of the Munchkins–local elementary school aged kids and younger, the doorman of Oz, played by Nicholas Byers a magician by trade who did yeoman work in his role, and another, the Tin Man was portrayed by community theater veteran Alexandria Longshore who took over the role in typical Wizard of Oz fashion for the ill Kieran Keeslar, in the days before opening night.
The principals–Jan Van Hess as the Wizard/Professor Marvel, Shelby Gebb as Glinda, Rae Simpson as the Wicked Witch/Miss Gulch, James Page as the Lion/Zeke, Guy Simpson, III as the Scarecrow/Hunk, Alex Longshore as the Tin Man/Hickory, and Kate Simpson as Dorothy–really carried the show with their renditions of the classics. Watching the opening left little doubt that Dorothy was in the house, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” was sung beautifully. A few older women in front of me said, “That’s how it’s supposed to be sung,” and “she’s amazing,” and they were both right. However, I was left feeling offended that the child playing Toto, took it upon herself to bark during the song, and actually howled during the closing line of the song… Completely disrespectful for the actress singing her heart out, and for the message of the classic song. The set change during the tornado actually got a round of applause, and the seventeen plus Munchkins did their parents proud as they fumbled and bumbled through the scene without too many errors. The appearance of the Wicked Witch brought the audience to the edge of their seats, as Rae Simpson owned the role. As Dorothy began her journey to the Emerald City the rest of the principals began to emerge. The Scarecrow, takes over the stage as the lanky 6’9″ actor nimbly does pratfalls and tumbles in a Ray Bolger/Jim Carrey hybrid. I had seen an advance showing of his “If I Only Had a Brain,” number with Dorothy when they appeared at a Triad Theater benefit a week ago, so I knew the audience was in for a treat. However, today, the child in the role of Toto was never where she needed to be, making the Scarecrow look less animated than the rusty Tin Man as he tried to avoid stepping on her, and waited for her to get in place for the choreographed dance. All of the audience was robbed of the opportunity to see the comic genius and rubbery moves of the Scarecrow. Alex Longshore did her best as the Tin Man and was in a tough spot playing a masculine role with less than a week to rehearse, she did not disappoint, though she did go a bit high when she first started her song. James Page, playing the role of the Cowardly Lion, like Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, and the Scarecrow, had the perfect voice inflection for his character as it was first portrayed in the Technicolor classic 74 years ago. He was very believable in his role, though he too had difficulty with the child actor portraying Toto, at one point he actually stepped on her as she laid on the stage. The inclusion of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” from The Wiz gave the opportunity for the multi-talented Rae Simpson to sing as the Wicked Witch, and made many in the audience say she was a “stunning witch.” The Scarecrow, Lion, and the Wicked Witch did a lot of interaction with the crowd getting lots of little kids to cheer, yell, and shriek. One mother said after the show that her daughter, who has only said a few words, pulled out her pacifier and said “Dorothy!” during the performance.
The chemistry of the leads was evident after the Wizard had floated away in his balloon, leaving Dorothy to find her own way back to Kansas via her ruby slippers. As she turns and says good-bye to each of her friends, she hugged the Tin Man and tears began to well in her eyes, making the Lion and the Scarecrow join her in the emotional moment as they took their turns hugging her. After delivering the classic, “I’ll miss you most of all,” with red glistening eyes Dorothy returned to center stage and began to tap her heels together and repeat those five famous words, “There’s no place like home.” I would recommend this show for people of all ages, and especially for those who have never seen a live theatrical performance so that they can see the magic of live theater. The only thing keeping this from getting a full five-star rating was the annoyance caused by the child Toto. The director missed the boat on this one, letting a child have card blanche, and do anything she wants was the only real flaw in this show. When she was talking during “If I Only Had a Brain,” telling the Scarecrow where his hat was, etc., or missing all of her choreography and messing up her fellow cast mates, or barking and yapping during songs or key pieces of dialogue, or especially when she howled during the signature song of the show I kept thinking that it might have been better if Miss Gulch had given Toto to the Sheriff to put the dog down. I kind of felt like if the director truly wanted to cast a more interactive/human-like Toto, she should have gone the Scooby-Doo route, or even cast the dog in a canine version of Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, with a vest and pocket watch once he arrived in Oz, but instead the dog is portrayed as a honey badger, without the comedic narration. The Wizard of Oz is an American classic, it is not the Odd Adventures of Toto, the dog is not meant to be the star, and in fact might have been better cast being a stuffed toy like Sylvester the cat. Toto is important to the story, but the dog really isn’t anything more than a device to advance the plot. This is a good show, not a re-tread of the movie, and the efforts put forward by the cast and crew of this production raised the bar because it was live and interactive, and many of the individual performances were outstanding.
If you want to see it, you are in for a treat. There are four more performances–Sunday, December 15th at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM, and Wednesday, December 18th at 7:00 PM, and Thursday, December 19th at 7:00 PM. For more information see the link below to the Facebook Event page:
Orphan Dorothy Gale lives a simple life in Kansas with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and three colorful farm hands, lunk-headed Hunk, blustery-but-timid Zeke, and seemingly cold-hearted Hickory. One day the stern neighbor Miss Almira Gulch is bitten by Dorothy’s dog, Toto. Dorothy senses that Miss Gulch will try to do something dreadful, but her aunt and uncle, as well as the farmhands, are too busy with their work to listen. Dorothy yearns for a better place in the song Over the Rainbow. Miss Gulch shows up and takes Toto away to be destroyed, by order of the sheriff, over the impassioned protests of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Toto escapes and returns to Dorothy, who is momentarily elated but soon realizes Miss Gulch will return. She decides to take Toto and run away.
On their journey Dorothy encounters Professor Marvel, a lovable but fake fortune-teller who, out of concern for Dorothy, tricks her into believing Aunt Em is ill so Dorothy will not run away from home. Dorothy rushes back to the farm but is knocked unconscious, inside the house, by a sudden tornado that has already forced her family into the storm cellar behind the house. A confused Dorothy awakens to discover the house has been caught up in the twister. Through the bedroom window, she sees a parade of people fly by. Then she sees Miss Gulch, also caught in the tornado, and pedaling her bicycle in midair, transform into a witch. Moments later the twister drops the house, Dorothy and Toto over the rainbow and into Oz.
Stepping into full three-strip Technicolor, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, arrives and informs Dorothy they are in Munchkinland. She tells Dorothy she has killed the ruby-slippered Wicked Witch of the East by “dropping a house” on her. Encouraged by Glinda, the timid Munchkins come out of hiding and celebrate the demise of the witch singing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” among other cheerful songs until her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, appears to claim the powerful ruby slippers. Glinda magically transports the slippers onto Dorothy’s feet and reminds the witch her power is ineffectual in Munchkinland. The witch vows revenge on Dorothy and leaves the same way she arrived, in a blaze of fire and smoke. Glinda tells Dorothy, who is anxious to return home, that the only way to get back to Kansas is to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City for help. Glinda advises Dorothy to never take off the slippers and “follow the yellow brick road” to reach the Emerald City. On her way Dorothy befriends a Scarecrow with no brain, a Tin Man with no heart, and a Cowardly Lion. The three decide to accompany Dorothy to the Wizard in hopes of obtaining their desires (a brain, a heart and courage respectively). Along the way the group confronts a forest of angry apple trees and several failed attempts by the witch to stop them, notably the Deadly Poppy Fields which lull Dorothy, Toto and the Lion to sleep. When they arrive at the Emerald City, the populace is threatened by the Wicked Witch, who skywrites a demand for the city to “Surrender Dorothy.” The group talks to the Wizard of Oz–a disembodied and imposing head with a booming voice–who says that he will consider granting their wishes if they can bring him the broom of the Wicked Witch.
The group then departs for the witch’s castle. On their way to the witch’s castle, they are attacked by flying monkeys, who carry Dorothy and Toto away and deliver her to the witch, who demands the ruby slippers. When Dorothy refuses, the witch tries to remove them but is prevented by a shower of sparks. She realizes the shoes cannot be removed as long as Dorothy is alive and plots on how to destroy her without damaging the shoes’ spell. As the Witch is considering on how to kill Dorothy, Toto takes the opportunity to take escape from the Witch’s grasp with Dorothy crying, “Run, Toto, run!” Outraged, the Witch screams at her monkey second-in-command Nikko, “Catch him, you fool!” but Toto manages to escape, much to Dorothy’s relief. The Witch, furious, snarls to Dorothy, “Which is more than you will do,” and runs over to a large hourglass filled with blood-red sand and turns it over, gleefully telling Dorothy “That’s how much longer you`ve got to be alive.” She puts the hourglass down and runs out of the chamber, locking Dorothy inside. Sobbing, Dorothy calls for Aunt Em, saying she is frightened. Aunt Em appears, and Dorothy tries to tell her that she is trying to get home. The witch appears, mocking and laughing at Dorothy. Meanwhile, Toto manages to find the lion, the scarecrow, and the Tin Man and lead them to the castle where Dorothy is awaiting her demise. Once inside they are barely able to free Dorothy and attempt an escape. The witch and her Winkie soldiers corner the group on a parapet, where the witch sets the Scarecrow on fire. To douse the flames, Dorothy throws water on them, and accidentally splashes water on the horrified witch, causing her to melt. To the group’s surprise, the soldiers are delighted. Their captain gives Dorothy the broomstick to thank her for their liberation from the witch.
Upon their return, the wizard tells Dorothy and her companions, “Go away and come back tomorrow.” Thanks to Toto, though, they discover the wizard is not really a wizard at all, just a man behind a curtain. They are outraged at the deception, but the wizard solves their wishes through common sense and a little double talk rather than magic–even telling them that they had what they were searching for all along. The wizard explains that he too was born in Kansas and his presence in Oz was the result of an escaped hot air balloon. He promises to take Dorothy home in the same balloon after leaving the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Lion in charge of Emerald City. Just before take off, Toto jumps out of the balloon’s basket after a cat. Dorothy jumps out to catch Toto and the wizard, unable to control the balloon, leaves without her. She is sadly resigned to spend the rest of her life in Oz until Glinda appears and tells her she can use the ruby slippers to return home with Toto. Glinda explains she did not tell Dorothy at first because she needed to learn “if you can’t find your heart’s desire in your own backyard, then you never really lost it to begin with.” Dorothy and Toto say goodbye to their friends, and Dorothy follows Glinda’s instructions to “tap your heels together and repeat the words, ‘There’s no place like home’.”
Back in sepia tone she awakens in her bedroom in Kansas surrounded by family and friends and tells them of her journey. Everyone laughs and tells her it was all a bad dream, except Uncle Henry. A happy Dorothy, still convinced the journey was real, hugs Toto and says, “There’s no place like home.”
When Dorothy wakes up from her trip to Oz, the issue with Toto and Miss Gulch appears unresolved and left to the audience to interpret, Miss Gulch may be intended to have died in the tornado, possibly in conjunction with the deaths of the Wicked Witches of Oz.