by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
The Wizard of Oz arrived in Jacksonville at the Times Union Center Tuesday, February 23. Dorothy and the gang will be on stage until February 28. The final performance on Sunday will offer a special treat, an appearance by Meinhardt Raabe, one of the original Munchkins in the 1939 movie.
The storyline of the Wizard of Oz seems to be universally known, but here is a quick refresher.
It’s a fantasy about a Kansas farm girl, who is swept up by a tornado and carried away from a bleak gray landscape to a brightly colored world over the rainbow. Dorothy, accompanied by her dog Toto, finds this strange place filled with strange creatures, including helpful Munchkins, talking scarecrows, unfriendly trees, and good and bad witches. Dorothy, with the help of her new friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, must seek the help of the powerful Wizard to outwit the Wicked Witch in order to ever get back home to Kansas.
The book, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900, was made into a classic movie in 1939 and was on television every fall for many years. This National Tour remains true to the beloved movie, with the tornado, the Land of Oz, and all the assorted characters. The production has even restored a planned portion of the movie that was not used, a flashy musical theatre number called the Jitterbug.
The production values of this show are excellent, with fabulous colorful costumes, and many special effects I had not seen in any previously viewed versions on stage. A rear screen is used with video to show the fields of Kansas, and then the twisting and whirling wind of a terrible tornado. Children were in awe as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and the Wicked Witch of the West came floating over the action high above the stage. The sets were in vivid colors and were dramatic as well.
The show was well cast with some seasoned veterans in the older parts and some bright new talent in many of the other roles. Of particular interest to me and many in the audience was the presence of young Jacksonville actors playing the Munchkins. Children in each city on the tour are selected to perform on stage during the run. The auditions in Jacksonville were held January 23 for the parts which included a great deal of dancing while singing “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” as well as appearances as soldiers.
Studio 1014 Dance, a local dance studio, rehearsed the children selected, and I might add the twelve local performers were excellent and there are probably several future musical theatre stars in the group. Look over their names, one of them may be your neighbor. As listed in the program, they are Natalie Fadel, Macy Swaim, Whit Hemphill, Ashley Dick, Taylor Townsend, Tara Foster, Aria Todd, Haley Pafford, Caroline Waters, Emily Waters, Chloe Childers, Alyssa Whitaker, Kalli Shifkey, Brianna Howard, and Kendall Rau.
Needless to say, there were a ton of kids of all ages at the opening night performance, but once the show started you would hardly knew they were there as they were mesmerized by the spectacle unfolding on the stage. And at intermission, I overheard adults discussing their experiences with discovering the book when they were young and later reading it aloud to their children.
Wizard of Oz is considered the most popular family musical in American Theatre and probably will continue to be so far into the future. I have seen “Wizard” a number of times and it is a show I always appreciate. The songs are a part of Americana, as the audience demonstrated by clapping along to “We’re Off To See The Wizard,” and “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead.” Of course, everyone knows “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the song that made Judy Garland famous and is one of the most beautiful ballads ever written.
So I hope you too, with friends and family, will be off to see the Wizard down the Yellow Brick Road before he and all his interesting friends disappear after the last performance on Sunday, February 28.
THE WIZARD OF OZ theatre review
by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom