For the duration of the show I sat directly in front of a child no older than four who was completely enamored with the show. She sang along with the songs, as did her parents and grandmother, and responded to most of the show’s magical moments with wonder. It turned out that I had the pleasure of sitting in front of three generations of Wizard of Oz fans, and it made the show that much better.
Listening to the family, especially the young child, get swept up in the wonder of the show reminded me not just of the magic of a beloved movie/show, but how a dedicated cast and crew can capture that magic and share it with an audience. Director Jeff Dare, and the talented cast and crew were able to capture this magic through one thing: simplicity.
I’ll be honest and admit that I went into the show hoping for tons of effects and tricks to pull off the twister, Dorothy landing in Oz, flying monkeys, and so on. I’m not sure why I expected all the bells and whistles. Nevertheless, I did. However, what the audience saw was well-designed, simple effects--as a note by simple I do not mean poor, cheap, or easy to execute effects as there was clearly a lot of time, planning, and talent that went into them. By simple I mean effects that added to the show rather than distract--that allowed the performances to shine.
Rather than construct a myriad of backgrounds for each scene’s setting, of which we know there are a lot, the crew projected images on the Virginia’s screen and combined those images with stage design. At first this was jarring for me, but as the show went on and more physical set pieces were added it all melded together perfectly; it wasn’t long before I forgot the backdrop was a projected image.
Additionally, instead of relying on effects or elaborate set pieces during scenes like when Dorothy was swept up in the twister, Dare and choreographer Whitney Havice utilized featured dancers. This, in my opinion, added to the whimsical, magical feel of the show in a way effects may not have been able to. The penultimate moment for Havice’s choreography came during the scene in which our adventurers are trapped and entranced the Jitterbug. The entire sequence was brilliantly choreographed and executed, and left me with my chin on the ground. It took everything within me to not give a standing ovation for just that scene.
All of those effects were wonderfully executed, and helped add to the performances in a well cast show.
With an uncanny ability to capture the sweet, encouraging yet unsure of herself nature of Dorothy, Colleen Bruton filled the ruby slippers perfectly. A wonderful, beautiful voice paired with terrific acting chops Bruton was able to breathe fresh air into a beloved character while still paying homage to Judy Garland’s famous portrayal.
As a trio Jacob Smith (Tin Man), William Curtis (Cowardly Lion), and Nick Hittle (Scarecrow) were fantastic, and played off each other extremely well. Their chemistry was evident from the get go. They played off each other tremendously well, and worked so well with Briton’s Dorothy. They shined individually as well. Hittle’s initial introduction as the Scarecrow was a little shaky (this was opening night), but he quickly fell into a groove. I enjoyed his decision to play the Scarecrow as more of an endearing friend rather than a mindless buffoon. Smith's physicality, and sweet demeanor made him a perfect Tin Man. Lastly, Curtis as the Cowardly Lion was a scene stealer. Funny, charming, and endearing, Curtis made the lion someone we all could relate to.
Susan Curtis as the Witch left me wanting more. Although she had a wonderful cackle, and it was obvious she was having a blast in the role, her take on the Witch just fell a little flat for me. Her take on the witch was just one I’m not used to, or was hoping to see. Her take was not so much a wicked witch, as much as a campy, conniving, sarcastic witch. I suppose it is just personal taste on my part, but I just did not always buy into the moments where characters were stricken with fear of her.
Lincoln Machula as the Wizard was absolute perfection. I knew going into the show this was brilliant casting, but didn’t know how absolutely amazed I would be. His deep, silky voice fit the part of Oz perfectly, and was made even greater with added sound effects. His first appearance as Oz was truly a wonder to behold, and one of my favorite scenes of the entire show.
Once in Oz, I couldn't help but smile whenever Kari Croop (Glinda/Aunt Em), and Jim Dieker (Emerald City Guard/Uncle Henry) was on stage. It's fun for a performer to be able to play larger than life characters, and both Croop and Dieker took advantage of that fun. Dieker made sure we knew the Emerald City guard drank plenty of whatever Kool-Aid the Wizard was serving, and we ate it up. Croop's Glinda was the sweet, wonderful Good Witch we know her to be, yet had a comforting present about her; the voice and sign of good when faced with strife and evil.
The true stars of the show were the children playing the Munchkins and the Flying Monkeys. They seemed, without a doubt, just as devoted and committed to their parts as were their adult cast mates. You could tell they truly relished being on stage, and they stole the spotlight any time they were on stage.
In the end, the most remarkable part of The Wizard of Oz was Jeff Dare and the cast’s ability to make larger than life characters feel like salt of the earth people. And because these are fairy tale like characters, the achievement is that much greater. For the first time in a long time, perhaps the first time ever, I found myself relating to a man stuffed with hay, a man turned into tin, and a cowardly lion. I found myself connecting to people feeling lost in the world, and searching for that one thing that completes them. That one thing that makes them feel at home in the world.
And even better? I felt like a child swept up in the magical tale again.
The Wizard of Oz
The Virginia Theatre
203 W Park Ave, Champaign
August 1st through 4th
Photos courtesy of Mike Heiniger Photography