Not in Kansas Anymore
What is there to say abou The Wizard of Oz at this point in time? The film -- if not the original book -- is etched in every American mind: Judy Garland's solid little Dorothy with her child's innocence and full, womanly voice; Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion; Margaret Hamilton epitomizing kitschy evil as the Wicked Witch of the West. There are the symbols: an impotent wizard with his bag of charlatan's tricks that somehow work, the Yellow Brick Road, the ruby slippers. And the endlessly quotable lines: "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too." "There's no place like home."
Best of all, there are the songs of Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg -- those songs that every single one of us could hum all the way through if asked. Despite the immense popularity of The Wizard of Oz, Arlen is far less famous today than such contemporaries as Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, yet he is the author of dozens of great songs, including "Stormy Weather," "I've Got the World on a String," "Blues in the Night" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." The reason the songs from Wizard stick in your mind is that, melodically and rhythmically, they're brilliant.
Under artistic director Michael J. Duran, Boulder's Dinner Theatre hews very closely to the movie version, but it's done with such élan that the show never feels old. With bright, inventive sets, clever costumes, lively choreography and hyper-energetic performances, it's like a carnival ride that whisks you away in a swirl of color, movement, sound and simple nostalgia.
As Dorothy, Emily Van Fleet, an undergraduate at the University of Northern Colorado, faithfully channels Judy Garland, but she doesn't bring Garland's intense emotionality and genuine sense of wonder to the role. Her acting feels more like mimicry -- albeit clever and dead-on mimicry -- than a process of in-the-moment discovery. Van Fleet's voice, however, is a marvel, shading richly through melting variations in tone and color, and her rendition of "Over the Rainbow" had the audience spellbound.
Several BDT stalwarts turn in riveting performances. Alicia Dunfee tones down her usual star quality to communicate Auntie Em's quiet dignity, then turns the wattage up high as Glinda, the Good Witch. For this role, she copies precisely the intonation and delivery of the film version's Billie Burke, but she somehow invests her dulcet tones and saccharin smile with such intense...well, niceness, if you can imagine such a thing, that you find yourself smiling back at her instead of snickering. Scott Beyette, John Scott Clough and A.K. Klimpke bring huge vitality to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, respectively, and Clough adds a matinee-idol baritone to the mix. Now toss in Brian Norber's uncharacteristically realistic Uncle Henry and squeakily demented Emerald City Guard, Wayne Kennedy's fuddled but well-meaning Professor Marvel and inventive bits of direction such as puppet crows singing along to "If I Only Had a Brain," add an excellent small orchestra, an adorable small dog and an ensemble full of fine voices and interesting personalities, and you have an extended frolic that simply doesn't permit a moment's cynicism. It's a cliche, but this really is a production both children and parents can enjoy.
Though his choice of repertoire is very safe, Duran has kept the quality at BDT high, and he's clearly willing to stretch certain limits, bringing in new performers such as Van Fleet and professional guest co-choreographers (in this case, Mark Chmiel) and collaborating with local artists in different disciplines. Frequent Flyers Productions helped integrate bungee-jumping into one of the numbers; the crows are the creation of puppet-maker Cory Gilstrap. I'd like to see a similar sense of adventure in the performance style. While it might be a mistake to veer too far from the tone of the movie, a few surprises here and there could have made this Wizard of Oz memorable as well as enjoyable.
And one thing more. I really don't mind the birthday and anniversary introductions and hoary old jokes that begin all dinner-theater proceedings. But lately at BDT, these intros have taken on a harder edge -- not just a mention of upcoming productions and products for sale in the lobby, but a spiel that feels like an endless TV commercial. And while it's a fine idea to allow children to be photographed with the Oz characters and to charge parents a small fee for the results, it detracts mightily from the magic of the show to have the poor Tin Man -- who has already sung and acted his non-existent heart out for us -- working as a shill as the lights go down.
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