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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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The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
With Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Background Music by Herbert Stothart
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 13, 2016

Nicholas Rodriguez, Kevin Cahoon, Danielle Bowen, Rich Pisarkiewicz, Stephen Wallem Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriguez, Kevin Cahoon, Danielle Bowen, Rich Pisarkiewicz, Stephen Wallem
Photo: The Muny

It’s June in St. Louis, and that means it’s time for the Muny again. It’s the 98th season for the illustrious venue, and first on the schedule this year is one of its most popular shows, The Wizard of Oz. Based largely on the classic 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s story, the Muny’s latest production is a crowd-pleasing production with all the expected elements. Directed by Muny veteran John Tartaglia and featuring a well-selected cast and the Muny’s Youth Ensemble, it’s a big production that fills the large stage well.

I probably don’t need to explain the plot. It’s The Wizard of Oz, one of the best-known stories in American culture, and well-known around the world. Most people associate the story with the Judy Garland film, and the Muny’s production, with the exception of a few added musical and dance sequences, is essentially the film on stage. The familiar characters are all here, including Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Danielle Bowen) and her little dog Toto (Dusty, who is a scene-stealer), who lives on a farm with her Aunt Em (Lynn Humphrey) and Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz). Then, there’s the tornado which takes Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz, where they are sent by Glinda the Good Witch (Leah Berry) to meet the Wizard of Oz (PJ Benjamin) in hopes of returning home to Kansas. Of course she meets the Scarecrow (Kevin Cahoon), Tin Man (Nicholas Rodriguez), and Cowardly Lion (Stephen Wallem), who join her on her quest while they all seek to avoid the Wicked Witch of the West (Peggy Roeder), who covets the precious Ruby Slippers that Dorothy wears. Everything is here, from the famous songs to the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, and the familiar theme that “there’s no place like home”.

This is an entertaining production, with a good cast, from Bowen’s Garland-esque Dorothy to Roeder’s more comically villainous interpretation of the Wicked Witch and Benjamin’s charming humbug of a Wizard. Dorothy’s trio of friends are also well-played, with Wallem’s particularly energetic rendition of the Lion being the real standout. Berry is also fine as Glinda, and Humphrey and Pisarkiewicz are a suitably kind and caring Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. There’s also an excellent ensemble, especially in the dance sequences representing the cyclone, and the Poppies sequence, and in the Munchkinland and Emerald City scenes. A song that was cut from the film, “The Jitterbug”, is the real musical highlight, performed with energy and style by Bowen, Cahoon, Rodriguez, Wallem, and company, dynamically choreographed by Ralph Perkins.

This is a colorful production, utilizing the film-inspired convention of presenting the Kansas sequences in sepia tones and then going to a full spectrum of colors once Dorothy arrives in Oz. Robert Mark Morgan’s versatile set and Leon Dobkowski’s detailed costumes are all suitably colorful. There’s also strikingly effective lighting by John Lasiter, and good use of video designed by Nathan W. Scheur. The microphones, particularly for the Scarecrow, were inconsistent and sometimes produced a hollow, distant sound, but otherwise the technical aspects of this production work well. Magic and wonder are what theatregoers expect with this show, and for the most part, this production gives them that.

The Wizard of Oz at the  Muny is just what audiences would expect, and it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. While it is essentially a staged production of the film for the most part, the performers are well-cast, the songs are well-sung, the the familiar story is well-told. While I personally tend to prefer productions that aren’t quite as close reproductions of the film, this is certainly entertaining and it’s a fun season opener. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the Muny has in store this summer.

Cast of The Wizard of Oz Photo: The Muny

Cast of The Wizard of Oz
Photo: The Muny

 The Muny’s production of The Wizard of Oz runs until June 22, 2016.

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