BWW Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ at South Bend Civic Theatre
For a performance run that spans multiple weekends, the first weekend is often accepted as a wrinkly weekend...acknowledging some things still need to be ironed out. Recognizing that this is the first production to open at 403 N. Main Street since Aaron Nichols stepped in as Executive Director (different from the previous alignment of a tag team Managing and Artistic Directors) also deems it necessary to say that this season was selected before Nichols took charge. He was indeed actively involved before, but to accurately evaluate his effectiveness, he would need to stay in this role through the beginning of the 2020 season (ironic, yet fitting, for a target of hindsight evaluation).
The Wizard of Oz is now past it's wrinkly weekend, but to be honest, even having attended the final dress rehearsal/preview of it, there weren't that many minor wrinkles to shake out. Presenting such an iconic tale (such as The Music Man, Mary Poppins, Les Mis, etc) it can be a blessing and a curse. In this case, with frequent SBCT director David Case, presenting stage versions that are more than faithful to the film version than uniquely theatrical is expected and received, which is partially unfortunate when you have such a talented array of designers and actors in this area. Not to take away from the performances that followed the yellow brick road--not at all--Nicholas Hidde-Halsey (Lion), Graham Sparks (Scarecrow), and Lincoln Wright (Tin Man), all having sang and danced their ways across the Wilson stage time and time again, were undoubtedly doing their (voluntary, aka unpaid) jobs and following Case's direction. Also involved in this project are Matthew Davidson (Lighting), David Chudzynski (Scenic Design/building including projections), Donald Willman (Costumes), Roy Bronkema (Music Direction), and Callie Anne Lorenz (Choreography).
Whether it's the Munchkins, the Winkies, or Winged Monkeys (which we'll come back to later), it goes without saying (even though I'm still going to say it) that it takes a village, forest, or guild to toss a house in the air and only suffer one casualty. Just to be clear, the casualty of the Wicked Witch of the East is scripted and expected, no one was actually fatally harmed in the production process of this show. That being said, the hiccups and hang ups are marked upon the hands of the director, Mr. Case, and those who didn't warn him had they noticed.
Let's just say it again, The Wizard of Oz, is a fun, 145-minute (including intermission), fantastical expedition that patrons of all ages can (and should) enjoy. But there are a handful of things that may be forgiven if you enjoy the overall trip down cinematic, I mean theatrical, memory lane.
For starters, with as much space is available on the stage in the Wilson Theatre (not including the often used aisles and house doors), the blocking and milling about seemed just that...like milling about. There were many actions and steps taken that appeared to be assigned for the sake of assigning blocking. For example, why are audiences waiting for set pieces, furniture, and giant wagons to be brought on stage, just to be brought off once on, or if they wouldn't have been in the way in the scene immediately prior? Any stage manager and deck crew member can tell you, if a prop or set piece is preset onstage before the show starts, the less of a chance it gets lost backstage for when it's actually needed.
Additionally, it can become a challenge (or a game) in deciphering how fantastical this iteration of Kansas/Oz is. The digital scenic illustrations often change dramatically while hand painted set pieces stick to a more cohesive look. One digital background after meeting the wizard actually reminded me of Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast, where the story is being illustrated with staiNed Glass images.
Granted, there are numerous captivating aspects, including Willman's costume design, Lorenz's choreography, an array of gymnastics during the Jitterbug, and of course, the vocalists, especially the singing Munchkins. (Fun Fact: One of the singing Munchkins, Makenley Macon, appeared as Annie in a production of Annie JR. at Dickinson Fine Arts Academy last school year. Just goes to show the type of new talent that SBCT is attracting).
One thing I can't let go, and you can call it being sensitive, snowflake-ish, or not, but one cringeworthy moment was when we finally meet our first Winged Monkey, and the actor is indeed a person of color. This topic could obviously be its own article, but at some point, someone has to speak up and acknowledge the fact that giving a young black actor the role of a monkey that enters the house making stereotypical ape/chimp noises would at least raise an eyebrow, only to notice that only the other two of three Winged Monkeys are credited in the program.
And whether the 1939 film wanted to send a message about certain lifestyle types and mannerisms as "cowardly" is something I wouldn't have thought of as a child, but as an adult, especially now, there's a difference in being sensitive and being aware, and we don't have the luxury of being naive anymore. We, as artists, need to be more aware of the messages we are sharing with our communities.
Overall, South Bend Civic Theatre presents an enjoyable evening to and from the Emerald City. These volunteer actors undertake multiple roles and costumes to tell a family-favorite story, and a few of our municipal administrators and local celebrities make cameos as well (but you'll have to see the show to see who).
Out of ten possible spotlights, The Wizard of Oz at SBCT gets a bright eight with a fun-filled, family-friendly time. If this is the direction that this 60 year old community theatre is going in, and Aaron Nichols is leading the way, then you might want to purchase your subscriptions early, because as this train picks up momentum, we're going to be far away from Kansas, but we'll still be at home.
The Wizard of Oz performs in the Wilson Theater at South Bend Civic Theatre, 403 N. Main Street, South Bend, Indiana 46601. Performances run through July 30th. Visit their website, sbct.org, or call the box office as 574-234-1112 to reserve your tickets today!