I know something about you. The 1939 movie, The Wizard of OZ, is a precious memory from your childhood, as it is from mine. I’m pretty sure I know something else about you. You would absolutely love El Dorado Musical Theatre’s current production of this treasured story.
I just saw opening night of the show, and it is utterly, utterly charming. And much as I loved the movie, there are many ways in which this show is better. For one thing, you can’t beat the magic of a live performance. But this live performance satisfies and delights in so many ways. What’s especially satisfying is that it follows the plot and even the dialog of the movie almost exactly. But the delight comes in the special touches.
For one thing the Munchkins are kids — talented kids — and much better singers than dwarves. I really mean that. I was surprised at the quality of their ensemble singing, demonstrating the effective coaching by Vocal Director Jennifer Wittmayer and her Vocal Captains. And newly promoted Choreographer Anjie Rose Wilson has given them wonderful routines to accompany the music. That’s one of the ways in which this stage production outdoes the movie: there is a lot more choreography, and it’s all great fun to watch.
Maybe it goes without saying, but these Munchkins — with their imaginative and colorful costumes — are as cute as they can be. But the cuteness doesn’t stop there, because these same kids come back as Trees, Poppies, Ice Dancers, Emerald City Citizens, Jitterbugs and Winkies (soldiers of the Wicked Witch) — each time with dazzling costumes (including some totally outrageous headgear), thanks to the fertile minds of Costume Manager, Christine Martorana, Costume Designer, Karen McConnell and the army that is the Costume Team.
This show is double-cast, with 62 performers in each cast. I saw the Ruby Cast, and the principal characters were superb. Dalton Johnson was the Scarecrow, and to me, he was every bit as limber as Ray Bolger, and maybe even a better singer. Luke Villanueva also sang beautifully to accompany his clunky movements as the Tin Man. And I have to say that, for me, Justin Harvey’s portrayal of the Cowardly Lion was better than Bert Lahr’s. He mastered Lahr’s shtick and had me and everyone around me laughing throughout the show.
Madison Sykes’ portrayal of Dorothy was arresting: it was so good that it seemed that she was channeling Judy Garland — voice, mannerisms, and all. And the Wicked Witch? Lindsey Hunter was perfect, so perfect that you probably shouldn’t bring very young children to see the show. Her costume was authentic, her make-up was frightful, and she absolutely mastered the Margaret Hamilton-voice that has been the standard for witches since 1939. Up and down the cast list, the acting in this show was outstanding. You don’t make accommodations for the youth of EDMT performers; they deliver.
You can tell that I was charmed by the Ruby Cast, but looking at the Emerald Cast, I see many of my favorite EDMT performers in principal roles. How can I resist going back to see them in this extraordinary production? Then there is the one character who plays the same role in both casts: Buster Pawsey as Toto. This utterly adorable little guy pranced on and off-stage by himself, hitting every cue, and stayed calm in Dorothy’s arms or in the arms of others as they passed him around. It was amazing how many scenes he was in, and though he didn’t steal every scene, he stole the hearts of everyone in the audience.
Did you notice I mentioned “Jitterbugs” above? “The Jitterbug” was a song and scene in this production that was cut from the movie. But this is only one way in which this production goes beyond that movie experience that you remember so well. For one thing, there is the “flying.” Dorothy is literally blown away in the tornado, and the nasty Miss Gultch — on her bicycle — flies through the air, as well. Glinda floats in seated on a throne. Monkeys fly. And the Wicked Witch enters more often 15 feet above the stage than she does from ground level.
But the flying is not even the most dramatic effect. Projection Designer Zach Wilson outdoes himself with each succeeding EDMT show. Apart from the colorful and realistic static projections that set each scene, there is animation in many of the projections and a neat trick of changing perspective to give a different perspective of the Yellow Brick Road. The presentation of the tornado was nothing less than a work of art. And the video of the menacing Wicked Witch, her face 15 feet high, was chilling. I have to say, though, I was blown away by the flames of fire coordinated with bursts of sound when OZ is first speaking to Dorothy and her friends — another effect that would be too much for the very youngest children.
There was so much more to this production: realistic sets, special effects, clever props and the occasional bit of magic, such as the moment when the Ruby Slippers disappeared from the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East before Dorothy stepped out wearing them. And now and then there was a reference to contemporary culture that delighted those of us who caught it. There’s not question: this was a triumph of stagecraft.
Director Debbie Wilson has delivered another masterpiece, again with the support of Producer Alicia Soto, and dedicated legion of hard-working and creative volunteers. All of them have made this a professional production in every sense of the word. So do yourself a favor and relive “The Wizard of OZ” in a new way. And if there are children in your life, bring them and share the wonder with them. Many years from now when they recall “The Wizard of OZ,” it won’t be the movie they’ll be thinking about; it will be this wonderful production.
The beloved tale of Dorothy and her journey through OZ has returned to The El Dorado Musical Theatre, opening the new season as a Main Stage production, featuring performers from ages 7 to 19. There are two entirely different casts performing alternating shows—the “Ruby” and “Emerald” casts. I saw the Ruby cast on opening night, Friday, so this review will feature those performers. Whichever one you may see, in EDMT shows the alternating casts are always of equally high quality.
Of course we all know the story, images, and songs of The Wizard of OZ. For kids growing up in the “baby boomer” generation, the movie was an annual event—almost as important as Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was shown on television once a year from 1959 to 1991, and until it was released on VHS video in 1980, that was the only way we could see it. But we were glued to the set each year, and Oz became a cultural institution, far more than it was after its 1939 theatrical release. For the generations growing up in the 80’s and beyond, it was available on home video and frequently on cable TV, so though it retained much of its popularity and found new audiences, it lost that “special event” feeling. But the characters and story endured, with new versions and interpretations of L. Frank Baum’s magical tale filling the cultural landscape. “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking,” “I’ll get you my pretty—and your little dog too!” and many other phrases became part of the social lexicon of America.
EDMT has presented The Wizard of OZ twice before, in 2004 and 2009. But this new version has greatly expanded the special effects, with large scale animated projections, flying effects, and a few more surprises. The big events, such as the tornado, are handled with a combination of projected animations and on-stage interpretive dance. High quality set pieces, such as the farm, Munchkin land, and the witch’s castle, are combined effectively with projected backgrounds, both still and animated, to bring home the look and feel of the movie to the stage, without directly copying it.
But the heart of the story is, of course, the characters. Starring as Dorothy in the Ruby cast is Madison Sykes. (Emily Fritz plays the role in the Emerald cast.) Sykes has a lovely voice that can handle, not only the iconic opening song “Over the Rainbow”, but is equally adept at joining in the comical and upbeat songs with the others. She also has a strong stage presence, bringing confidence whether sharing the scene with the other lead actors, or with a stage full of the younger dancers. She brings to life the emotional core of Dorothy, who is alternately frightened and overwhelmed by the experience, delighted in her magical surroundings, and brave in the face of adversity.
Dorothy’s co-stars are just as important, and from the moment he is unhitched from his pole, you can tell Dalton Johnson has what it takes to be a great Scarecrow. His strong voice and lanky frame allow him to handle the great song and dance number that sets up the trip down the yellow brick road, “If I Only Had a Brain.” Luke Villanueva handles the more tender role of the Tinman, and the mechanical style of his dance that contrasts with the floppy Scarecrow. The biggest laughs came with the appearance of the Cowardly Lion, handled with great gusto by Justin Harvey. He puts everything he has into “If I Only Had the Nerve”, and the later “If I Were King of the Forest.”
And then of course there are the witches. Starring as the beautiful Witch of the East, Glinda, is Jordan Soto, who floats in on her circular throne to lead the Munchkins in “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead”, and later in “Poppies”. While she gets to show off her lovely soprano, which fits perfectly with the character, her counterpoint, the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Lindsey Hunter, has to settle for delightfully evil shrieks and threats as she conspires to get those ruby slippers from Dorothy. Like Sykes, Hunter takes control of the stage whenever she is there, making sure everyone knows she is in charge, (at least until her untimely melting at the end.)
One of the most memorable effects of the original movie was its abrupt change from black & white to full color when Dorothy lands in OZ. That effect is carried out beautifully in the Munchkin land scene when the stage explodes with color, as the youngest cast members appear in their amazing Munchkin costumes, created by costume manager Christine Martorana, designer Karen McConnell, and a team of volunteers. Overall, 80 percent of the show’s costumes had to be made from scratch, all the way up to the amazing hats. Even Dorothy’s dress goes from a dull brown to a bright blue gingham once she is in OZ. The cuteness factor reaches its peak in Munchkin land, as the Munchkins, led by 9-year-old Drew Longaker as the Mayor, belt out their songs to the delight of Dorothy, Glinda, and the audience.
Director Debbie Wilson has once again put together a wonderful show, handling two casts of 62 performers each. For this production, she handed the choreographer role to her daughter Anjie Rose Wilson, a 15 year veteran performer with EDMT, and known for her skills as a dancer. In addition to studying dance herself, Anjie has been a dance teacher and assistant choreographer for years. She had to come up with 25 pages of formations and charts to handle the many large dance scenes, such as Munchkin land, the Emerald City, the apple trees, and the marching Winkies at the Witch’s castle, along with the Yellow Brick Road scenes. One of the more complicated dance numbers was the “Jitterbug”, a song left out of the movie, where Dorothy and the others are attacked with a dancing spell before being captured by the flying monkeys. The choreography makes the scene work, and is one of the most memorable.
The title character—the Wizard of OZ/Professor Marvel—is handled well by Russell Anderson. Though he has no songs, he brings the humor and command needed for the role. Another performer that must be noted is Buster Pawsey, the adorable dog playing Toto. It must be very nerve wracking to rely on an animal to perform well on stage, but Buster always ran right where he should have, and stayed put in his basket when he needed to. The dog had to be trained to interact only with the characters he would in the show, which were the two Dorothy’s, the two Lions, and the two Professor Marvels.