BWW Review: The Magic of OZ; The Miracle of MSMT
To stage the beloved cultural icon that is THE WIZARD OF OZ offers any theatre company a herculean challenge: one which requires stretching the imagination to the limits to create a universe where reality is redefined and fantasy is fulfilled. In short, it demands stunning stagecraft and brilliant artistic vision. And it is just that kind of theatrical magic which Maine State Music Theatre's new production co- directed by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark boldly and beautifully realizes.
The 1939 movie, with its then-ground-breaking special effects, its memorable performances, and its timeless message, remain indelibly etched in the collective cultural consciousness and has spawned a host of adaptations and versions, though none may quite rival this dazzlingly inventive production conceived by Marc Robin, incorporating the Royal Shakespeare adaptation. Known for creating theatrical contexts which transform their spaces and their audiences and for being one of the most cinematically inclined Contemporary Stage directors, Robin here joins forces with his longtime collaborator Curt Dale Clark, who brings his own personal history as the Scarecrow to the project, as well as with an ideal cast and creative team - all of whom come together to produce a WIZARD OF OZ you simply will never forget!
From the Overture's playing under the opening large screen video titles to the seamless integration of projections, moving image, and two-and-three-dimensional elements, this is a production that is tinged with the magic of the silver screen at the same time that it has the muscle, kineticism, and grace that only live theatre can offer. Robin and Clark make use of every theatrical technique available to them from puppets, to acrobatics, to aerial feats, to pyrotechnics, and combine these with classical musical theatre staging and choreography to create a universe where heightened reality blurs the line with fantasy - a world where gravity is defied and logic eschewed, but one where imagination and the heart reign supreme. There is humor and warmth especially among the Four Friends, whose tales are told with genuine simplicity and disarming truthfulness. Paying homage to the quintessential elements of the film, Robin and Clark transform these into something original - visceral and substantive. And then there are the little special twists and surprises, the most moving of which crowns the final scene.
The choreography is extraordinary - a potpourri of ballet, tap, jazz, musical theatre styles, and tumbling - and Robin and Clark know how to tell stories and shape character in dance from the dramatic tornado ballet to the mesmerizing Yellow Brick Road, to the jaunty tap dancing Tin Man, to the show stopping grand scale jitterbug, or the NUTCRACKER-inspired Poppy Ballet..
The Harold Arlen /Yip Harburg movie score which forms the basis of the music is catchy and familiar; played here with brio by the eight-piece orchestra in the uncovered pit, under the excellent musical direction of Ben McNaboe (Kyra Teboe, Assistant), it resonates with a liveliness and energy that is infectious. McNaboe marshals the orchestra effectively through the considerable underscoring of the piece (Herbert Stothart's film score), maintaining a fine balance between vocal and instrumental and achieving a lush texture that reflects the colors of the work.
The physical production is as elaborate and vibrant as anything you will see on Broadway. The scenic design by Robert Kovach is exquisitely handsome, referencing the look of the movie with its contrasting sepia scenes for Kansas and bold colors for Munchkinland and Oz. Color is arresting - brilliant Fauvist hues in yellows, greens, pinks or dark, swirling dangerous tones. The entire design is framed in a proscenium of floating abstract expressionist forms, reminiscent of Kandinsky and of the Futurists, that has a startling vigor much as early 20th century art did. The design uses three distinct looks from the angular expressionistic set pieces of Kansas to the exuberant, rounded, boisterous pastels of Munchkinland to the elegance of Oz - each contrasted with the dark world of the Wicked Witch. Dan Efros' projections and video (Ryan Swift Joyner, Assistant) are a striking part of the overall beauty of the design, adding a cinematic flow to the visuals. Jeffrey S. Koger's lighting layers more color, pattern, and movement onto the scenery. Shannon Slaton's sound design creates an effective balance between actors and orchestra, especially in the underscored dialogue scenes, and Slaton comes up with some creative solutions for the Wizard's voice and other "magical effects."
Costume Designer Travis S. Grant (Gerard James Kelly, Wigs) once again outdoes himself, building over one hundred garments rich in color, texture, silhouette, and detail. Giving free reign to the fantasy, Grant creates a universe at once deliciously outrageous, glamorous, witty, and loveably folksy. His solutions to the many technical challenges of these fairytale characters are clever and eye-catching from the silhouette perfect Four Friends to the winged monkeys on graduated pogo stick stilts or the flowingly draped human Yellow Brick Road. His is a combination of subtlety - countless individual shades of emerald green, for example - and unabashed glitz that captures flawlessly the sense of fable and fantasy.
The entire creative team comes together to create the huge number of special effects in the show, which in addition to those already mentioned (Tornados, Yellow Brick Road, Monkeys) include a giant Grand Guignol puppet for the Wizard/Gatekeeper, a trio of hilarious Apple Trees in drag, shooting geysers of smoke and fire, and the Wicked Witch's very convincing melting scene. And then there is the flying - by Foy: Glinda's graceful bubble, Miss Gulch's aerial crossing, and the exit of the Wizard in a balloon - all executed with dazzling aplomb! Stage Manager Mark Johnson (Amy Bertacini, Assistant) and team skillfully keep this complicated production on course.
And yet for all the technical wizardry, what makes this WIZARD OF OZ so memorable is the depth of sincere emotion it conveys, due in large part to a cast who is deeply connected to the material. Making her debut as Dorothy Gale, Carolyn Anne Miller brings a fresh, youthful presence and a thoroughly engaging honesty to the role, and she delivers her signature vocal moment, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with soaring lyricism, lovely phrasing, and believable sincerity. Her character gains in strength and stature as the play progresses, and she tugs at the heartstrings in the final farewells. Marc Robin delights with his sweet, gentle, winsomely boyish portrayal of the Scarecrow and Hunk. An acclaimed dancer, he captures perfectly the loose-limbed, seemingly boneless structure of this creature, tumbling, flopping, tapping, and pirouetting with disarming ease, and he demonstrates his vocal prowess in "If Only I Had A Brain." Ian Knauer displays infectious charm and vulnerability as the Tin Man/Hickory, making his vaudeville-styled tap number a show highlight. David Girolmo as the Cowardly Lion/Zeke rounds out the quartet with a loveable, comic, cuddly lion, who uses his bass to fine effect in "If Only I Had the Nerve" and "If I Were King of the Forest." One of his most amusing moments comes as he stands with Toto in his arms like a baby Simba, and riffs wistfully on THE LION KING.
Sue Cella makes a glamorous, imperiously nasty Wicked Witch of the West and a stern Miss Gulch - the perfect villainess - while Lauren Blackman, all pink and pretty as Glinda, the Good Witch, is an elegant and regal foil who delivers a vocal highlight in the "Munchkinland Sequence." Andrew Kindig projects the two sides of the Wizard/Professor Marvel - self-aggrandizing and bumblingly insecure, and in the final "Graduation" scene, displays a deft wit, while as the Gatekeeper, he manages the puppetry with skill. Birdie Newman Katz and Glenn Anderson are sympathetic as Aunty Em and Uncle Henry, while Michael Peter Deeb as Nikko leads a wiry and wild band of winged monkeys. Tumbling with breathtaking élan, Michael Olarabigbe is a gallant Yellow Brick Road; Dori Waymer is a brassy Munchkin Specialty; Joseph Ryan Harrington and Tara Lyn Steele are impressive in the Poppy Ballet, and Janayé McAlpine concludes the scene with a lovely lyrical solo. Tyler Johnson-Campion (also Dance Captain), Michael Peter Deeb, and Diego Cortes offer wicked humor as a trio of mincing drag queen Apple Trees, and Jane Abernethy's imperious Ozian seems to reference Madame Morrible. (WICKED)
The large ensemble all come equipped with individualized characterizations and a sense of credible backstories and personalities. Rounding out the excellent company of adult performers are Alicia Babin, Katie Brnjac, Jonathan Bryant, Lani Corson, Veronica Druchniak, Nicole Fava, Nicholas Hall, Stevie Ann Mack, Victoria Madden, Liv Nurmi, Collins Rush, and Robert Avery Wilson with the twenty-person children's ensemble, including Katherine Boston, Emmy Carlson, Acadia Cornish, Aymeric Dauge-Roth, Michaela Davis, Penelope Johnson, Lily Jones, Declan Kelley, Emmeline Knight, Hope Lambert, Elliot Jane Larsen, Andrew Lyndaker, Emily Millar, Lily Philbrook, MyKayla Prophet, Sophia Scott, Miles Sims, Joy Stewart, Ava Talbiot, and Jasiah Taylor offering several enchanting sequences. No production of THE WIZARD OF OZ would be complete with a mention of its canine star, Toto, here loveably - and obediently - played by Cairn Terrier Zelda.
MSMT's Oz saga closes out the 61st main stage season on a spectacular high note. A feast for the eyes and an extravaganza for the heart, beautiful, brilliant, and infused with genius, this production of WIZARD OF OZ has the makings of myth and miracle all in one.
Photographs courtesy of MSMT
THE WIZARD OF OZ runs from August 7-24, 2019, at MSMT"s Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, M