Review by Gail M. Burns, November 2003
What a gift the Drury Drama Team has given the north Berkshire community this dank, gray November! A chance to relive a beloved tale of courage, heart, and hope live on stage, and an opportunity for people of all ages to be actively involved in its presentation.
This musical production of The Wizard of Oz is a literal translation of the 1939 MGM film. It takes no look back at L. Frank Baum's classic book and it does not explore any new avenues. At first this seemed like a pretty lame idea to me. If I want to see the movie I can see the movie. There is no way to recreate on stage many of the special effects of the film, and performers like Judy Garland and Bert Lahr were unique talents and any attempt to mimic or recreate their performances are bound to end in disappointment and disaster.
It also seemed like a lame idea to me personally because I don't particularly like the movie. I had the book read aloud to me when I was about the age of Baum's Dorothy, around six or seven years old, and I identified strongly with her. Judy Garland turned 16 during the shooting of the film and personified none of the fiesty pioneer spirit of Baum's creation. I cringe at the line "I am Dorothy, the small and meek."
Being a basic scaredy cat, I found the movie frightening and distasteful. I hated the scene with the hourglass and the crystal ball in the witch's castle. I literally loathed the annual ritual of watching the film on television. I couldn't imagine why anyone thought people would want to go and see this all over again in a pale stage imitation. So, of course, I bundled up my eight-year-old nephew and went.
And it was just great. Much as I hated what I was forced to watch year after year after year there is something about ritual and repetition that is deeply satisfying to the human soul. There were parts of the movie that I hated, but parts that I really loved (what's not to love about Bert Lahr??) and there is no doubt that the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg music and lyrics are brilliant. What fun they are to hear! And what fun the cast had performing them. My nephew was singing lustily in the bathtub this morning.
Another thing I discovered was that my strong memory of every word and frame of the film helped me fill in where stage technology failed. I could imagine the twister, the winged monkeys, the grandeur of the Emerald City. Five stalwart folks are credited with creating and building the set - Joel Rudnick, Ron Waterman, Tiger Waterman, Scott McNeil, and Charlie Manuel - and some of what they have created is just great. At other times they seem to have run out of steam, which is understandable. Mounting a show with ten sets and 26 scenes is a major challenge for a professional theatre, let alone a high school.
But there are some technical treats. Oz is truly Great and Terrible, snow falls on the poppy field, and Glinda enters under a soft shower of glitter. These things are really magical and exciting because you know how much time and effort went in to enabling them.
The principal roles of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the munchkin chorus of elementary school children are double cast. I saw a rehearsal of cast A and a full performance with cast B. This situation lends itself to conparison, where that is not really important. This is not a competition. The question is not who I liked better but was each cast able to sustain believeable and entertaining performances, and the answer is yes. I was especially pleased that no one seemed to be trying to mimic the movie performers but had been encouraged by director Len Radin to find their own approaches to these classic characters.
Both Dorothys - Samantha Therrien in cast A and Lara Pagan in cast B - are striking brunettes with lovely singing voices, but there the similarity ends. Pagan is sultry and blessed with an effortless soaring voice to match. She sounded more like Judy Garland, but was completely wasted in a little girl role like Dorothy Gale. I hope to hear her belting out some Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, or Gershwin tunes in the near future. Therrien is all wide eyed innocence with a sweet voice. She embodied more of Baum's pioneer woman than Pagan.
Mollie Simon tried hard, but Charlie Manuel was just amazing as the cast B Scarecrow. I would put him right up there with Dick Van Dyke and John Ritter in terms of his pratfalling ability. I hope he was wearing padding under there because he flung himself about the stage with great vigor.
Why is it so hard to like the Tin Woodsman? The make-up nearly killed Buddy Ebsen. Everyone dissed Jack Haley, calling him the "weak link" in an otherwise stellar cast. And I found Lauren Skeffington less appealing than her companions, although she manages to wear silver face paint without ill effect and does a nice job with her dancing. I am beginning to suspect that the part needs a re-write. All those talented folks can't be the problem.
Bert Lahr was such a stitch as the Cowardly Lion, that extra material and an additional solo (If I Were the King of the Forest) was written for him during the course of the filming. This makes the Cowardly Lion a showier part than the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodsman, and it also provides the performer tackling it with VERY big shoes to fill. Radin has cast two very different actors in this role. In cast B Sarah Simon is a bundle of girlish glee able to belt with the best of them. In cast A, Michael Grogan is, obviously, not a girl and brings an entirely different sense of bravado to the role.
I did not see the cast B Wicked Witch and so cannot comment on Abby Wood, but Katharine Kennedy in cast A was appropriately lean and mean. I do not understand Radin's reasoning behind not allowing any of the principals to play their Kansas counterparts. Granted, the dream framework is an invention of the film. In Baum's book Dorothy really does go to Oz and return, everything and everyone she encounters there is real and distinct from what she knew in Kansas. But this script is so very clear that she is dreaming and that the people she knew in Kansas are the counterparts of the characters she meets in Oz that is is jarring that in this case none of them are.
I just loved the Munchkins! And it looked like they just loved being there. It was rather like the Cat in the Hat unleashing Thing One and Thing Two, although in this case there were Things One Through Twenty on the stage. Their energy and excitment was palpable. They did a wonderful job of being quiet when they needed to be quiet and belting it out when they needed to be heard. The audience loved them and their parade through the audience was greated with enthusiastic clapping in time to the music at the cast B performance I attended.
Haylee Jones is a lovely Glinda. There is something very soothing about her sparkly pink tulle gown and tall hat. Soothing and magical all at the same time. And what a treat to hear Jones sing my favorite song from the score "Optomistic Voices." That's the one that begins "You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night..." and only a very few lines of it are heard in the film as the foursome leaves the poppy field and heads for the Emerald City.
There are a couple of nice musical surprises in this production, bits of music or verses of songs cut from the film or heard only as background music. Hearing the introductions to Over the Rainbow and If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve is fun. And then there is that Jitterbug number. If you have ever watched one of those "The Making of Oz" TV shows you have seen the jerky, grainy clip of this number. The idea seems to have been that the Wiked Witch sends the Jitterbugs to the haunted forest to trap and capture Dorothy and friends. The Jitterbugs are creatures who force you into a lifetime of bad ballroom dancing. Huh? The number was wisely cut from the film in favor of having the winged monkeys swoop down and carry Dorothy off. It is reinserted here and it is just no fun.
Pam Langlois of Hemmingway in North Adams has designed dozens of fabulous costumes, some of which appear to be exact replicas of the film costumes and some which are merely evokative of their style. I was fooled at first and insisted the costumes must have been rented from a professional Oz supplier, which is a great tribute to Langlois professionalism and skill.
Because it is so familiar to all but the youngest, this show took on the atmosphere of a big party to greet old friends. Although there were children in the audience who were frightened (a small person behind me demanded to be taken home everytime the Wizard's enormous green face and thunderous voice were projected) most folks in attendance were old enough to really enjoy the proceedings. It was fun for me to have my nephew, who literally did not know what was going to happen next, beside me. After the performance he couldn't wait to greet the actors, demanding a hug from Glinda. For him this was even more spectacular than any technicolor movie because it was live and real. That is what theatre is all about. Thank you, Drury Drama Team, for this wonderful gift.
Cast A will perform at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 22 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 23. Cast B performs at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 21 and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 22. All performances are held at Drury Senior High School (413-662-3240), 1130 South Church Street (Rt. 8A) in North Adams.
Tickets are $9 for adults and $6 for students and are on sale at Persnickety on Eagle Street and at Papyri Books on Main Street. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for all ages.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003