A Well-Done Introduction to a Classic: THE WIZARD OF OZ

Katherine Leigh Doherty as Dorothy and ensemble in the Wheelock Family Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. photo by Tony Paradiso.

The Wizard of Oz, By L. Frank Baum, music and lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, based upon the Classic Motion Picture owned by Turner Entertainment Co. and disbuted in all media by Warner Bros, Wheelock Family Theatre, 1/27/12-2/26/12, http://www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org/feature-performance.aspx.

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston, MA) If I hear one more mediocre stage actress imitate Judy Garland’s tortured delivery of Dorothy Gale from the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, I will buy the Wicked Witch of the West a poncho.  Inadequate productions of L. Frank Baum’s bizarre story often parrot the rampant overacting of the movie, with disastrous results.

Luckily, Wheelock Family Theatre director James P. Byrne and actress Katherine Leigh Doherty (Dorothy) set a fresh and nuanced tone to their production of The Wizard of Oz, rallying most of the cast to create characters that are both vibrant and familiar.  Byrne and the cast breathe new life into a classic, while providing a comfy venue for little ones to be introduced to a classic.

Aside from imitation, there are many ways to go with Wizard.  The tale has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times, from the funky the Wiz to the politically-barded Wicked, that the original themes of loss and reclamation of family can be lost.  The more ambitious productions often attempt subtexts that simultaneously appeal to adults and children, but this method is fraught with its own pitfalls.

Byrne smartly realizes his target audience doesn’t even know how to pronounce the word “subtext”; he shoots straight for the earnest hearts of the younger set.  Largely, this production works to reach this crowd, even pulling quiet tears from my six-year old daughter for its poignancy.

One of Byrne’s most effective directorial choices is to keep the evil and good characters from going over the top into caricature.  The world of Oz may be bright, but morality here is gray.  The Wicked Witch of the West (Jane Staab) often forgoes snarling in favor of biting sarcasm, behaving like an elderly Mary Poppins who has snapped.  We bond with her as much as with Dorothy as we realize that evil is not boringly loud, but seductively quick-witted.  Meanwhile, Glinda (Lisa Yuen) is revealed to be the dotty troublemaker we always suspected, someone who is oblivious, powerful and mercurial.

Ricardo Engermann as the Scarecrow (sans hat), Katherine Leigh Doherty as Dorothy, and Shelley Bolman as the Tinman in the Wheelock Family Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. photo by Tony Paradiso.

The cast largely rises to the tone set by Byrne.  Doherty carries the show at moments with a pitch-perfect interpretation of Dorothy, creating a layered character that never wavers on the stage, even during a macabrely-forced jitterbug dance.  And from his first movements on stage, Ricardo Engermann captures us with his physical performance of the Scarecrow.  With his loose limbs, Engermann creates a purely physical creature who may have no brain, but is all heart.  Both Staab and Yuen anchor the production, as well.

The production has its flaws.  My daughter noticed one curious and egregious costuming short-cut with the first appearance of the Tin Woodsman (Shelley Bolman), incredulously whispering to me, “He’s wearing silver tennis shoes!”  What, did they run out of tin at the last minute?

There were a few other glitches, many of them technical.  Dorothy’s jail cell first needed to be reclosed by the Cowardly Lion (Timothy John Smith) before she is sprung, the pitcher to liquidate the Witch rolled around the stage before it was used, and the Wizard’s mike cut out at the climatic ending.  Also, neither Smith nor Gamalia Pharms (Aunt Em) succeeds at creating three-dimensional characters.  But none of these problems are enough to keep children from wanting to click their red heels together and delve into the magic of Oz

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