BWW Reviews: The Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts THE WIZARD OF OZ at the Capitol Theatre

By: Jul. 24, 2015
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Is there a more beloved work than L. Frank Baum's THE WIZARD OF OZ? It is adored by folks from all walks of life, and it deals with an issue we can all respond to--finding your true self and coming to the understanding that the "home is where the heart is" cliché rings true. Filmmaker John Waters once questioned why anyone would want to return to Dorothy's boring black and white Kansas world instead of a colorful land of adventure where flying monkeys are possible, but that's beside the point.

The film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ is the most huggable, lovable, fun-for-everyone story around. It is rightfully considered one of the masterpieces of the cinema, ranking #6 of all time in a famed AFI poll. It wasn't a hit when first released in 1939, and it only won two Oscars (Best Original Score and Best Song). But time, plus numerous television showings, has turned it into perhaps the most adored film of all time.

The staged musical is pretty close to the thrills that fill the screen version, so it's natural that Jarrett Koski, the show's director and Musical Theater Department Chair of Ruth Eckerd Hall, decided to do it. After his successful Beauty and the Beast In Concert last year, he has followed it up with an even more popular story. And the result is a thrilling, fast-paced journey to the Land of Oz at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre, featuring Bay Area students ages 13-18 who for the summer are part of the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts. Forty-five young theatre veterans and newbies share the stage, and it's one of the joys in life witnessing kids bloom for the first time onstage, where they find their initial love of theatre, the sheer joy of performing--a joy the audience responded to when they gave the production a hearty standing ovation on opening night.

Koski knows what he's doing, and it shows with the casting of this classic. It can be said that you don't have a show if you don't have a darn good Dorothy. She's in virtually every scene, and the production must have an actress worth her pixie dust to pretty much carry the full performance load. Enter Courteney McClutchy, Belle in last year's Beauty and the Beast who was also a formidable, awe-inducing Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie at East Lake High last spring. She's equally wonderful as the lost Dorothy Gale. Her acting and singing are stellar, and she's someone the audience wants to follow down the Yellow Brick Road. Sometimes she's such a confident performer, such an incredible onstage presence, that we want to see even more vulnerability from her. But she's always in character, always in the moment. We believe her struggle, want her to win, and understand why a doltish straw man, a literal metal head and a bungling jungle beast want to join her.

The first friend Dorothy encounters is the Scarecrow, played with wild abandon by Michael Mekus. Mekus was the Beast last year, and he's equally strong here. The actor finds so many likable levels as the empty-headed Scarecrow, and he goes from energetic dunce with a penchant for pratfalls to a character with genuine heartfelt emotions near the end. There is an electric, child-like glee in his interpretation; it's a performance charged with infectious merriment. In the (straw) hands of Mekus, "If I Only Had a Brain," showcasing a remarkable singing voice and backed by Kaitlyn Chase, Grace Duncan and Maggie Graham as crows with kazoos, easily became one of the highlights of the evening.

As the Tin Man without a heart, Tyler Wade tap-dances his way through an enchanting "If I Only Had a Heart." I've never seen a Tin Man quite like this; his costume is wonderfully bizarre--making him look like an aluminum-donned Vegas performer. He's surrounded by a group of engagingly catty, eye-rolling, apple-throwing, Valley Girl trees: Piper Allen, Sarah Duren, Shayna Gilberg, Sarah Johnson, Julia LaPierre and Gabbi Lutz.

Kyle Powalski is an imposing Cowardly Lion. He garnered much laughter, and his "If I Only Had the Nerve" was outstanding (I wish his "If I Were King of the Forest" had the same highs). His dreadlock-mane makes him resemble a Goliath Master Blaster--Bob Marley as the cowardly King of the Forest.

One of the top performances of the night belongs to Kylie Couture as an entrancing Glinda the Good Witch. Her acting, singing, and onstage presence are simply superb, and her performance of "We're Out of the Woods" in the field of poppies ranks as one of the top two songs of the show. As her opposite, the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West, Kelley Daiker dives deep into the treacherous soul of one of the greatest baddies of all time. You sense her love of delicious villainy, and she may even scare the younger viewers (but don't worry, not too much). She's wonderful in her lip-licking wickedness, although her evil witch laugh didn't reach the Margaret Hamilton acme and could definitely use some work (her performance deserves it).

Entertainingly aiding the Wicked Witch is Nikko the Head Flying Monkey, played with scene-stealing verve by Jessa Williams.

The show gets off to a slow start. Sarah Johnson as Aunt Em and Casey Gloecki as Uncle Henry are very good, although I wish they were made to look older. Sometimes little things matter, and in one scene, Johnson's Aunt Em is holding a plate of cookies, and as she walks into the house, she takes a bite out of one of the cookies. I think that's an incorrect choice, because Aunt Em is such a hard worker and gives so much of herself for the farm that she wouldn't even think of eating one of those cookies that she baked. It seemed too flippant an action for this strong Kansan. It's a small moment, as trivial as it gets, but a performer's choice, even one as minor as this, helps paint a bigger picture.

Because Koski had so many actors to choose from, the parts of Hickory (Noah Keyes), Huck (Kyle Cunningham), Zeke (Nattalia Ortiz) and Miss Gultch (Katie Davis) are not played by the same actors who portray the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch. This sometimes becomes a questionable decision when the script makes it a point to show that Dorothy fills her dream world of Oz with the farmhands that she's known her whole life, but director Koski finds an ingenious way of melding the two worlds in Dorothy's cyclone dream.

The production starts off rather shakily, but then it finds its footing, its first spark of energy, when Chris Cavazza as Professor Marvel enters the stage; his enthusiasm is like a starting pistol at a race--it gets things going. Even though Marvel usually also plays the titled Wizard, another actor, a sturdy and entertaining Zach Schumacher, plays the role here. (The scary Wizard voice is effectively provided by Daniel Boelke.)

The harmonies of the ensemble are spellbinding. All of the players are exciting to watch, and of the ensemble, standouts include Amber Smith, Julia LaPierre, Dior Dollmont and Nick Dean. Choreography is strong and lively, especially in the jumping "Jitterbug" number, a song cut from the original movie (it's not as timeless as the other WIZARD OF OZ songs; it's the only tune here that seems stuck in 1939, not that that's a bad thing). I like how Koski stages the cyclone as a dance of doom; however, it didn't seem to pack the punch that it should have and could have been even more intense for my likings.

I am usually not a fan of actors portraying animals when a real animal will do; yes, as I have written on several occasions, I prefer real dogs used in shows like THE WIZARD OF OZ and Annie. It adds another emotional layer to the story and makes for the appropriately cute "aww" factor; besides, who doesn't like seeing an actual dog onstage? In this production, Toto is kept in Dorothy's basket at the beginning, and we don't get to see it, which means we don't get to feel her connection to her pet here (which is a key ingredient in this show because it leads to Dorothy running away). After she gets to Oz, an actor portrays the famed Cairn terrier. With all that said, putting aside my opinions against people playing iconic dog roles, Dorian Perez makes for an endearing Toto.

Paul McColgan's set is beautifully realized and though minimal for such a magical show, it is quite effective; I like how the Gale house is in black and white at the beginning and then becomes quite colorful after it lands in Oz. Dorothy's dress (designed by costumer Peggy Koski, who never disappoints with her designs of all of the creative wardrobe) also quite cleverly does this--black and white stripes during the blah Kansas scenes at the beginning; blue and white during her venture to Munchkin land; and green and white during her stay in Oz. Niko Lyons lighting design adds much to the show--especially during the cyclone and any of the Wicked Witch's entrances.

The onstage band, led by Music Director Judith Hurst on piano, is spectacular. Kudos to Hurst, drummer Sean Fote, violinist Rebecca Zapen and clarinet/flute/oboe player Anthony Fuoco, for keeping the music tight and full of life.

But a show like this cannot be done without a visionary like Jarrett Koski. Koski has changed many lives with his productions, and he gives the audience reasons to cheer. Like Dorothy, he and his talented performers have finally found their home. For Dorothy, home means Kansas; for Koski and his cast, it means the stage. It's a magical experience.

THE WIZARD OF OZ continues at the Capitol Theatre Friday, July 24th at 7:00 PM and Saturday, July 25th at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM. Tickets can be bought at the box office.


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