In living colour
Familiar tale of Dorothy Gale takes on new hues in vibrant Rainbow Stage production
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A tornado touched down and ripped the picket fence out from the ground. Farmhands struggled to hold onto their Stetsons. An old meanie on a bicycle went up into the sky without a ramp. And a young girl was transported from a small town in the middle of America to a lollipop forest in the middle of somewhere else.
We weren’t in Kildonan Park anymore.
The musical version of The Wizard of Oz, which premièred at Rainbow Stage Thursday night, is not a new story. It is based on writings by L. Frank Baum, first published in 1900, which were then adapted for the stage in 1902, and which were then adapted for the screen, premièring on Aug. 21, 1939, 83 years ago this weekend.
Since Baum’s first manuscripts were typed, the Wiz has not stopped casting its spell.
Even at Rainbow Stage, the story is old: it was performed in 1956 — when it entered the public domain — 1959, 1970, 1991, 1992 and 2006. So why did it feel so wonderful?
It’s a silly question: there’s no place like home.
But the production at Rainbow, which runs until Sept. 4, does far more than simply rely on existing affinity for what is now a 122-year-old tale of independence, family, adolescence, self-discovery, courage, heart, logic, magic and defying expectations. It oozes whimsy, joy and lightheartedness, and its cast of characters — those named and unnamed — delivers the goods in a perfectly packed picnic basket, on sets that must be seen to be believed. Imagination runs wild, but never so fast that the audience can’t keep up.
The old story: Teenage Dorothy Gale (played by the excellent Alyssa Crockett with more subtlety than the Dorothy made immortal by Judy Garland) is in Kansas, living with her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em (Kamal Chioua and Laura Olafson), but she would rather be somewhere on the other side of the multi-coloured ribbon in the sky.
The farm is swell, with a trio of workers (Jaz Sealey, Chase Winnicky and Nathaniel Muir) providing Dorothy some, but not enough, camaraderie to make up for her loneliness. Most of her friendship is directed to her little dog, Toto (a puppet operated with brilliance by Julia Davis). When Toto is threatened by the wicked Miss Gulch (Sharon Bajer), Dorothy runs away.
Then, a tornado strikes.
One of the most dangerous things a theatrical production can promise is an escape: it had better transport us, make us forget where we are. But the Wizard at Rainbow Stage pulls off the magic trick: with a real breeze whooshing through the open-air theatre, it’s not hard to be blown away by a fake storm.
The sets designed by Narda McCarroll certainly helped: making brilliant use of a revolving platform at the centre of the stage, and a wise device of the core cast walking out into the audience as the stagehands moved the set pieces, the transitions were smooth and effortless.
Each subsequent set — a field with upturned rakes, a shimmering forest made of tin cans, an Emerald City decorated with upturned two-litre bottles of ginger ale and pie pans — was interesting enough to cause the eye to wander but not stray.
The lighting, designed by Scott Henderson, bathed but never washed out McCarroll’s sets, with rays of green and blue shifting the mood at a moment’s notice. The choreography was understated, and exploded at just the right moments, with an orchestra playing along out of sight but, thankfully, not out of earshot.
In watching the theatrical version, something strange becomes obvious: while Dorothy Gale is the most important character in the most famous of stories, she is the least exciting, playing the innocent and demure mirror for the wild antics and emotive personas of her three colleagues — the scarecrow without a brain, the tin man without a heart and the lion who lacks courage.
It’s to Crockett’s credit she understands this: she is the audience’s stand-in, our tour guide through the neuroses of her new friends.
And what good friends to have, each making the well-known characters fresh. Sealey’s Scarecrow is an elastic delight, moving as if controlled by the wind, singing as if possessed by the still-kicking Dick Van Dyke. As the Tin Man, Winnicky is a tightly wound, highly emotional ball of metal, an alloy of his own making.
It’s difficult to pick a favourite, but Nathaniel Muir’s Cowardly Lion — an overzealous palooka who played like a mixture of Yogi Bear, Scooby’s cousin Scrappy-Doo and the best of Joe Pesci — is a contender.
A special award should be given to Toto handler Davis, whose left thumb controlled the cairn terrier puppet’s tail. Watch the tail and you’ll know whether to be scared or relieved. (Speaking of relief, stay tuned for a well-placed urination joke.)
In the ensemble, everyone does their part, but a few — Jeff Rivet, Joseph Sevillo and Catherine Wreford in particular — make the most of their opportunities to stand alone.
In the second act of the play, as in the movie, a little steam is lost — it’s strange how “rounding up the gang” is somehow more fun than the actual action sometimes. But that’s more an indication of the high peaks of entertainment at the beginning and end of the story than an indictment of the story itself.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.