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The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
Adapted by Frank Gabrielson with music of the MGM motion pictures score by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, background music by Herbert Stothart
Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter
Variety Children’s Theatre
October 19, 2017

The Wizard of Oz is a classic tale about dreams, home, and family. Adaptations–and especially those based on the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland–have been staged in various places around the world for decades. It’s a very popular show, especially for family audiences. It’s an ideal selection for Variety Children’s Theatre, with its huge casts of adults and children, featuring director and choreographer Lara Teeter’s inventive staging and excellent opportunities for the child performers especially, making for an entertaining and vibrant show that’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Variety Children’s Theatre is now in its ninth year, producing shows in association with Variety the Children’s Charity, which works with children with special needs. The shows allow the Variety kids the opportunity to participate in a full-scale production either on stage or behind the scenes, along with more local children and professional actors and crew. The Wizard of Oz is the first Variety show I’ve seen, although I had heard great things about their productions in the past. Overall, this is an impressive production, utilizing the space at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center with a great deal of energy and creativity.

It’s the Wizard of Oz. It’s so well known that I don’t think I really need to summarize the plot. It’s a beloved classic, but it’s one that’s been done so many times that it can get to the point where it doesn’t seem like anything new can be done with it. This production proves that the show can be performed as written, but with still finding new and fresh approaches to the staging and characterization. I’m usually impressed when a production casts a Dorothy who doesn’t try to sound like Judy Garland, and this production does that well with the excellent Elizabeth Teeter, but it goes even further, with a characterization of the Wicked Witch of the West (Allison Newman) that is truly novel, as far as I’ve seen. The rest of the familiar characters are all here–Aunt Em (Laurie McConnell), Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz), the Scarecrow (Drew Humphrey), Tin Man (Martin Fox), and Cowardly Lion (Patrick Blindauer), as well as Glinda (Julie Tabash Kelsheimer), the Wizard himself (Alan Knoll) and, of course, Toto (Nessa). The story is the usual story, but what’s most notable here is the inventive staging, including excellent flying effects and the excellent utilization of the adult and children’s ensembles.

The production values are excellent, from Dunsi Dai’s colorful, versatile set that relies a lot on movable set pieces, to John Wylie’s dazzling lighting, to the well-suited costumes by Robert Fletcher and Kansas City Costume. The flying effects, from Flying by Foy, are among the most impressive I’ve seen in a St. Louis production, as various characters and set pieces “fly” with seeming effortlessness. The staging is especially strong as well, particularly in the ensemble numbers which provide excellent moments for the child performers, especially in Munchkinland, and for the adult ensemble in the Emerald City sequences and in the Witch’s castle. Teeter’s energetic choreography is also a highlight, from the various solos for the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, to the spectacular “Jitterbug” sequence. Teeter is especially adept at incorporating all the cast members into the production numbers in inventive ways.

There’s a great cast here, from the earnest, strong-voiced Elizabeth Teeter as Dorothy to Newman’s truly hilarious,  interpretation of the Wicked Witch. She’s younger, and kind of whiny, spoiled and entitled. I’ve never seen the Witch played that way before, but here it works, and Newman does a good job of being funny and menacing at turns. There are also winning performances from the scene-stealing Blindauer as the Lion and as Kansas farmhand Zeke; the flexible Humphrey as the Scarecrow and farmhand Hunk; and from Fox as the amiable Tin Man and farmhand Hickory. Pisarkiewicz is also impressive as Uncle Henry and especially as the Emerald City guard, and McConnell turns in a solid performance as Aunt Em. Knoll, as the Wizard and as Professor Marvel in the Kansas scenes, is also in good form, and there’s an excellent canine performance from Nessa as Toto. The children’s ensemble is excellent, as well, with notable performances from Nick George as the Mayor of Munchkinland and Charlie Mathis as the Munchkin Coroner. The adult ensemble features excellent performances from all, and especially Will Bonfiglio, Nathaniel Hirst, Mitchell Holsclaw, and Caleb Long as the Apple Trees. Everyone does a great job, though, from the Munchkins to the Winkies to the Flying Monkeys and more.

I’m glad I was able to see this performance. It’s a huge production, with a huge cast, and as is fitting for The Wizard of Oz, a lot of heart, brains, and courage. This is a thoroughly entertaining show, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Variety Children’s Theatre will present in the future.

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