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November 23, 2010

Emerald City gives the Wizard a modern makeover

Wicked may dominate the stage, but Emerald City Theatre Company’s production of The Wizard of Oz reminds us of the story that stole our hearts years ago. This charming trip through Oz makes up for its modest production level with zany costuming, a variety of humor, and unabashed performers, making it a treat for adults and children alike.

While this production stays true to The Wizard of Oz’s well-known plot, it gives its characters a contemporary makeover. Dorothy Gale (Missy Karle) dons jeggings and a bomber jacket. With KISS-like makeup, a leather jacket, and an ’80s-glam wig, the Cowardly Lion (Shea Coffman) is transformed from a wimpy creature into a washed-up rock star, while the Tin Man (James Nedrud) pays homage to hipsters with stylish glasses, a skinny tie, and an ax made not of metal, but of a Guitar Hero controller. The entire cast also wears Converse tennis shoes, save for Dorothy and her ruby-red ankle boots.

Danny Lee Taylor puts on a particularly hilarious gender-bending performance as both Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West. Dressed in tight pants, a trendy camo jacket, and a short gray wig, Taylor transforms the film’s archetypal crotchety old woman into a vindictive, suburban cougar. Later, as the Wicked Witch, Taylor channels a more vicious Lady GaGa with a gown made of black sequins, glitter, and a gigantic gossamer neckpiece.

Some of the story’s specifics have been changed due to the small cast size and a shorter run-time of only 60 minutes. Post-cyclone, Toto (Raymond Havy) becomes a human-sized travel companion that cannot speak, but sings in perfect English when it comes time to dance. And once in Munchkinland, Dorothy finds not little people, but little puppets. Operated by ensemble members, these Munchkins sing and dance and hysterically fling from side to side during musical numbers.

The film’s original score also receives some reductions because of the small size of the production, but that doesn’t deter the cast from giving it a simple yet earnest delivery. While none of the songs are cut, they are watered down in terms of orchestration. Some of these renditions verge on sounding like elevator music, but others offer a comical take on the familiar tunes, such as the Scarecrow’s (Bret Beaudry) silly bluegrass rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain.”

The humor delivered by this cast is undeniable, though it’s primarily slapstick in order to appeal to children. Trumpet fanfare and cheesy grins accompany each mention of the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and there is an unexpected duel between Toto and the Cowardly Lion, à la The Matrix, poking fun at over-dramatized fantasy battles. However, most appreciated is Taylor’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch’s less serious side. She whines about her slipper-stealing nemesis, exclaiming,“I hate her!” yet in a swift aside, notes, “but I love her skirt.”

Also unique to this rendition is a breaking down of the fourth wall. The Emerald City Theatre Company has created an interactive Wizard of Oz. Much of the acting occurs in the aisles or, in the case of the Munchkins, sitting next to unsuspecting children. In a very “clap your hands if you believe” moment, children even have the chance to wake Dorothy and her crew from their poppy-spell by making it snow with jazz-hands.

This adorable production of a classic stands as a perfect complement to the holiday season. Many people will be traveling back home and will discover firsthand the Wizard of Oz’s timeless message that there’s no place like home.

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