Almost everyone in America has some childhood memory of The Wizard of Oz. The Alliance Theatre’s whimsical production is a great way to revisit your childhood or create memories with your children.
The audience was excited to see the production. I counted at least a dozen little gradeschool Dorothies with blue-checked pinafores and ruby slippers. This adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic story was written with young people in mind. Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the story’s more frightening aspects were downplayed or made humorous. For instance, the character of the Wicked Witch of the West is written to be more comical than scary in this version. And the audience loved it! Laughter was prominent throughout the play, and the whole audience joined the cast in clapping during “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!”
For patrons who define The Wizard of Oz by the 1939 MGM classic movie, the Alliance production includes the familiar songs and basic storyline from the movie. All the major characters (the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion, and of course, Dorothy) are all recognizably reminiscent of the movie. In some scenes (but not all), the characters use lines from the movie.
However, each character is reflective of the Alliance’s unique production. The iconic role of Dorothy (memorable to most people as played by Judy Garland) is a difficult role to emulate; however, Sharisa Whatley’s portrayal of Dorothy is absolutely phenomenal. Whatley aptly captured the essence of a child’s innocent expressions and speech, but also danced and skipped so animatedly that it seemed an overflowing expression of the characters mood, rather than choreography intentionally inserted into a production. In addition, Whatley’s divinely effortless rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is sure to impress even the most staunch critic. A better Dorothy has never been cast.
Another well-cast character is Brad Raymond in the role of the Cowardly Lion. Raymond’s subtle characterization of the Lion incorporates memorable moments, uniquely played. Although a slight variation from the movie’s representation, the scene in the forest as the Lion emphatically declares that he does “believe in ghosts!” is both humorous and believable. However, my favorite scene with Raymond as the Lion is in Oz as the Lion sings “King of the Forest.” Raymond’s regal air is very convincing, but his contrasting reversal is equally impressive. Raymond’s Lion is one of the most fun characters in the production.
Puppets are also incorporated into the production as characters. Instead of using a real puppy, Toto is constructed of spools of thread, and animated by whichever character currently holds him. The munchkins are also portrayed, very creatively, as puppets. Some are hidden in the backdrop (as flower petal faces) while others are actual puppets animated by puppeteers. Unique to this adaptation, the puppeteers are not hidden behind props or staging; rather, the puppeteers are as involved in the production as the puppets themselves. I was very impressed with the fanciful creations as well as the incorporation of the puppeteers.
The puppets themselves are just one example of the American folk art theme accentuated throughout the play. Other examples include the production’s set and costume design, which invoke the flavor of Americana. The fairly minimalist set allows the audience to fill in the blanks—particularly in Kansas, which contains merely a screen backdrop with a patchwork quilt design, a tiny house representing the Gale home, and a small wall/window unit. After the twister (ingeniously expressed with a sheet, a fan, and just the right lighting), Oz is revealed to be full of brightly colored backdrops reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Other favorite folksy scenes include the glass bottle forest and the bicycle-infused witch’s castle.
Costuming also reflects the folk art theme. In Kansas, Dorothy wore a traditional blue patchwork pinafore; however, in Oz, her pinafore changes to brightly colored material painted with houses. Scarecrow’s costume is equally an expression of folk art, as his pants are made from quilting squares. The Tin Woodsman’s costume is also fun and unique, suggesting a “found materials” work of art as his costume is designed to look as it if were created from found or discarded objects. A giant Altoids tin, Campbell’s soup cans, and bottle caps are included among the “found” objects in his costume.
Whether you have kids of your own or you’re a kid at heart, you’re sure to enjoy the Alliance’s interpretation of this classic story. Running at 70 minutes, the play will keep your kids’ attention and have them in bed at a decent weekend hour. The Wizard of Oz runs from February 25 to March 11 at the Alliance Theatre. Be sure to bring the kids on March 3 for The Wizard of Oz FAMILIES Centerstage festivities, including arts, crafts, music and your favorite characters. For more information, please visit www.alliancetheatre.org.
– Sue Cochran