Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Little Theatre on the Yellow Brick Road

Colleen Johnson, Compo and Danielle Davila in "The Wizard of Oz" (News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart)
By Dan Hagen
The Little Theatre’s family-focused season, which began with Mary Poppins, continues today with The Wizard of Oz.
And yes, it’s THAT Wizard of Oz, the 1939 MGM film version with which the world is most familiar, slightly expanded and extended with a song by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Fantasy is a much simpler sell on film, of course, and there’s a moment or two when the capable performers could use a little extra special effects help. Mollyanne Nunn, for example, tries valiantly to be ethereal as Glinda the Good Witch, but could use a boost from something shiny, at least a pin spot.
But what director John Stephens may lose in movie magic, he more than makes up for in the magic of immediacy. All the familiar characters are there, right in front of you, sustained by the performers’ belief in them, something you can see in their eyes. You may be surprised at how well a very strong cast can keep this Baum ticking.
Marty Harbaugh turns in the best performance of his career as Uncle Henry and the Emerald City gatekeeper. And the talents of Little Theatre veterans Glory Kissel and Jack Milo lend weight to Aunt Em and the Wizard.
The instrumental music is recorded, with full orchestration, but the singing voices are live, and deliver all the Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg songs audiences would demand to hear from the film.
Josh Houghton and Danielle Davila
But that doesn’t mean that the stage can’t provide some enhancements of its own. The Scarecrow’s If I Only Had a Brain theme, for example, is enlivened by the presence of three unimpressed dancing crows (Collin Sanderson, Corbin Williams and Brady Miller).
The weight of the show rests on six principal characters, five of them played by humans. Toto is played by Compo, a ringer for the dog in the movie who has sweet shoe-button eyes. He behaves well on stage, even during magical whiz-bangs that cause the canine only a slight nervous tremble.
Colleen Johnson as the Wicked Witch of the West and Danielle Davila as Dorothy, particularly, have the tricky task of emulating Margaret Hamilton and Judy Garland without parodying them, and both deftly thread that needle.
Johnson — green-faced, red-eyed — delights in delivering those devilish threats that have frightened small children for 76 years now. The fact that the witch shares with many women a passion for fashionable footwear springboards us into the show’s one original song, Red Shoe Blues.
Davila has the necessary sincerity for the role of Dorothy, and can put it across to the audience without being cloying, no mean feat. Much of this production’s success rests on this avoidance of missteps, and there are many opportunities to trip up here. Too close to the movie and the show’s a bore. Too much deviation from the movie and the audience leaves dissatisfied. These are dramatic troubles that don’t melt like lemon drops, and yet they are not in evidence here. The overall impression that the show leaves you is one of great charm.
And perhaps the most charming of the lot are the three companions. Jordan Cyphert, who radiates good cheer on stage, is a natural fit for the tin man, the most compassionate of these characters. His makeup, like that of all three companions, is a true treat for the eye. Tommy Lucas is terrific as the cowardly lion, the funniest figure in the show. Lucas has considerable stage presence, but no more than Josh Houghton as the Scarecrow. This actor shares many of the best qualities of Ray Bolger. In fact — let’s just admit it — Bolger was no better in this role than the pliable, likeable, loose-limbed Houghton is here.
You expect wonders in Oz, but the most wonderful part of this show comes as a surprise — it’s Jitterbug, a lively dance number that was cut from the movie. In the witch’s haunted forest, the spooked companions sing, “Oh, the bats and the bees and the breeze in the trees have a terrible, horrible buzz. ... So, be careful of that rascal/Keep away from the Jitterbug.” The companions are forced into a frantic dance by actual Jitterbugs — goggle-eyed, floppy-antenna-ed insect people (endearingly suited up by costumer Jana Henry). The number, Wiki notes, was “…both a jazzy development of the plot and a nod to the then-popular bobby-soxer dance craze.” And, as staged by choreographer Megan Farley, it offers enough sure-fire fun here to frighten any scarecrow.
So if you can’t get over the rainbow, get over here.
Incidental intelligence: The Wizard of Oz continues through July 26. The show has scene design by Noel Rennerfeldt, lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Daniel Gold, Emily Long, Emmy Burns, Chloe Kounadis and Sara Reinecke.
The Munchkins, poppies and flying monkeys are played by children — Madison Brummer, Rudy Haegen, Emily Long, Grace Lynch, Piper Countryman, Andalyn Hodge, Cian Lynch, Izzy Miller, Liz Owens, Ava Shiver, Wesley Standerfer, Lance Richardson, Callie Standerfer and Kiley Will.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375. 
P.S. Seeing the dress rehearsal last night reminded me of just how much that 1939 movie scared me during its annual airing on CBS when I was, what, 3 years old? Even in black and white, that witch was terrifying to a small child who can conceive of nothing worse than a malevolent, omnipotent “Bad Mommy” bent on his destruction.
I also admire the clever way in which the story plays with, and slightly subverts yet reinforces, the mythic pattern of the hero quest. The young hero is supposed to meet a powerful sage — a Merlin or an Obi-Wan Kenobi — who can supply him with gifts to meet the challenges that loom ahead. Instead, in this story, the supposed sage is an impotent fraud, and the quest is a con. The mythic Trickster figure has secretly supplanted the Sage. The heroine and her companions are thrown helpless against the witch but emerge unscathed by accident, only to find that the fraudulent sage does have gifts for them after all. But, as befits a con artist (or a master psychologist?), the gifts are placebos that serve to trick the protagonists into realizing that they should learn to value what was already within them.

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