Regional Reviews: Phoenix
It's easy to see why Oz is so often produced as, not only is it probably the most loved family movie ever made, but it is also an instantly recognizable title. The songs from the film are classics and, when combined with L. Frank Baum's iconic characters, the whole affair becomes a perfect musical outing for families. For those unfamiliar with the film or the series of books from Baum that it is based on, the plot follows Dorothy Gale, a misunderstood young teenage girl in farmland Kansas who dreams of finding a place over the rainbow where she can belong. When a tornado comes along and whisks Dorothy, her dog Toto, and her house to the colorful land of Oz she has encounters with many strange and mostly friendly creatures. These include a scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a talking lion, as well as two witches, one lovely and sweet, the other ugly and horrible, and a wizard who is wonderful and nice. But even with these friendly creatures, all of whom resemble someone Dorothy knows from Kansas, and the magical and colorful land of Oz, Dorothy wishes she could just go back home.
There are a couple different stage versions of the story, including the most recent one which includes several new songs written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Phoenix Theatre is presenting the adaptation that the Royal Shakespeare Company presented in 1987. This version includes almost all of the major scenes, familiar dialogue, and popular songs from the film score, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, including "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and the Oscar-winning "Over the Rainbow." But it also includes several things not in the film, like some updated comic moments and the movie's one major deleted song, the sensational showstopper "The Jitterbug."
Director Michael Barnard has assembled a very good cast composed of many Phoenix Theatre favorites who are all gifted in paying homage to these familiar characters from the film, yet at the same time adding nuances and layers so they aren't just carbon copy reproductions. As Dorothy, 18-year-old Carley Nicole Grossman exhibits a wide range of emotions. Her smart acting choices provide an emotional connection for the slightly self-centered and misunderstood yet endearing young girl. Grossman's powerful, clear voice excels on her many songs, including a sensational version of "Over the Rainbow." She also has a lovely interaction with all of the characters Dorothy meets on her journey and is more than able to hold her own on stage with them, even though all of the other actors have years more stage experience than Carley does. Overall, it is an exceptional performance, which perfectly shows the innocence, vulnerability and determination of the character.
As the three men Dorothy meets on her journey, Robert Kolby Harper is hilarious as the Cowardly Lion, playing up the "dandy" part very well; Toby Yatso is endearing and sweet as Scarecrow, with confused looks and statements that are just right for a man with no brain; and Ryan Kleinman uses a soft spoken nature and strong, clear singing voice to instill the Tin Man with plenty of heart. Rusty Ferracane brings a clear sense of excitement to both Professor Marvel and the Wizard, as well as a deep level of concern for Dorothy in the final scene. Sally Jo Bannow has the right balance of menace, without being overly scary, as the Wicked Witch and her straightforward, precise, and dramatic delivery is a nice counterpoint to the numerous comical characters in the show. As Glinda, the good witch, Shana Bousard has a clear, beautiful voice and a sweet and caring disposition that make the character completely joyful. Geoffrey Goorin and Christy Welty are both perfect as Dorothy's over-worked uncle and aunt, while Terry Gadaire adds a nice amount of humor as the Oz main guard.
Michael Barnard's direction adds plenty of original touches but allows fans of the film to experience the familiar, well-loved moments from the movie as well. Fortunately, Barnard doesn't let those moments become campy or caricature. Choreographer Nathaniel Shaw provides some fun staging but it is the non-stop frenzy of "The Jitterbug" that shows off how skilled he is, elevating this number into a huge crowd pleaser. Only the tornado sequence, with the ensemble members dancing and jumping around with long pieces of cloth to signify the raging storm, is a bit of a disappointment.
Creative elements are, as usual at Phoenix Theatre, exceptional. Robert Andrew Kovach's multi-purpose sets use just a few large pieces to create the imaginative worlds of Oz. His sepia-toned Kansas farmhouse combines beautifully with the costumes from FCLO Music Theatre to create the two separate worlds, with Kansas devoid of color, and Oz completely in vibrant and bright colors. Michael Eddy's lighting is impressive with some stunning designs for the several special effects sequences. Dave Temby's sound design is clear and crisp and Alan Ruch's music direction delivers rich sounds from both the cast and orchestra.
Whether you've seen the film one time or a hundred times, the story of Dorothy and her journey to Oz is still thrilling, touching and extremely heartwarming. With a very talented cast, impressive creative elements, and exceptional choreography and direction, Phoenix Theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz is just about perfect. Fans of the film should enjoy the creative touches that bring the story to life on stage while also appreciating the added elements that allow it to not just be a carbon copy creation of the film.
The Wizard of Oz runs through December 27th, 2015, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.
Director: Michael Barnard
*Members of Actors' Equity Association