By Chad Nance
Winter won’t quite let you go and the smiles haven’t been pouring in like they used to? Are you already loving the vibrant greens, purples, reds, and yellows of our Carolina Spring and think you’re in the mood for something a little psychedelic and joyous? Twin City Stage’s production of “Wizard of Oz” bring’s Frank L. Baum’s classic tale to life with energy, moxie, and heart. What could have easily been the rote recitation of a beloved classic is, instead, a spirited celebration of why community theater matters.
The 2016 production utilizes Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s immortal songs and dialog from Victor Flemming’s 1939 classic adaptation as adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s John Kane. The lyrics and music for “Wizard of Oz” are now hardwired into the DNA of the American pop consciousness in such a way that to reproduce them on the stage becomes a comment on the original material. Considering that reality, director Steven LaCosse, his cast, and his crew clearly share a deep love for the material. Twin City Stage’s production has the jocular, professional feel of vaudeville married to a 21st Century self-awareness that never allows the material to descend into mindless smaltz.
Choreographer Jessica Grant and LaCosse move their company around the stage with blocking that never becomes incomprehensible even when it is a study in chaos. “Wizard of Oz” is a challenge when it comes to telling the story through movement because the music cues were all written for a film where editing various images together could control pace. Here LaCosse and his company have to hold the focus of the audience without being able to hide behind cuts and effects. Their work flows beautifully bringing joy and awe to choreography that could have easily just been anarchic.
Lighting designer Daniel Alvarez and sound designer Alexander Wolfe have created a production that does not rely on flash and technology. These technicians use some very simple techniques to tell the story clearly while at the same time providing strong cinematic moments that bring chills on at least two occasions. Scenic designer Bland Wade has created an evocative set that works on building atmosphere with a impressionistic, force-perspective kind of psychedelia. Stage Manager Melissa Peller and her crew keep things moving along even when having to work with the multiple demands of the choreography and the set design.
Costume Designer Justin Hall’s work echoes the 1939 film’s Technicolor glory while keeping an ironic handle on everything. The costumes for the core cast of Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion are a delight. The other costumes are inventive, clever, and more than a little punk bringing an aesthetic that seems to revel in and comment on the material and pop from the stage as a visual treat. Hair & Make-up designer Emily Young and her crew do a great deal of heavy lifting with the three leads and the multiple changes for the majority of the company. The Tin Man, Wicked Witch of the West, and the Cowardly Lion are particularly stunning builds and provide exactly the right accompaniment to some truly invested performances. The crew behind “Wizard of Oz” have taken reduced resources and budget and labored hard to create something that often comes across as grander than the sum of its parts.
Music Director Margaret B. Gallagher and her orchestra do much of the heavy lifting in this “wizard”. Utilizing the film score as well as the songs written for the film requires the orchestra to carry the audience through the entire place and fill in holes and transition due to the fantastical nature of much that occurs on stage. They do so ably really coming into their own with the recurring motifs begin with “If I only Had a Brain” and ending with “If I only Had the Nerve”.
“Wizard of Oz” sports a large cast with many players filling multiple roles. Family members make up a large part of the company such as the Father/Daughter team up of Asher Ellis as Uncle Henry and Isabella Ellis** as Dorothy. Donovan Fansler, Josh Fansler, Kayelyn, Caleb Gerber, Todd Gerber- these connections within the cast result in a powerful warmth and genuine heart.
If there is a standout in this production it is an amazing young performer named Jonathan Grice as the Cowardly Lion. This Forsyth Tech student steals the show when he is onstage with a magnetic, confident, and hilarious performance as the yellow bellied would-be King of the Forest. Grice’s singing is strong and his comic timing pulled the largest laughs and applause out of the Thursday night preview audience. This young man is a force of nature.
When it comes to full commitment to the material and to the tone, there is no cast member that went as all in as Wake Forest Physics professor Jed Macosko as “Scarecrow”. (His daughter Karina Macosko is also in the cast.) Macosko’s performance is a wonder as he comes with an elastic physicality and rubbery face that plays clear and very funny with a touch of Groucho Marks shining through in the delivery.
The heart and soul of “Wizard’s” lead trio is Josh Gerry as Tin Man. His singing is smooth and he brings a thoughtful gentleness to the role through what be a challenging costume and make-up. Gerry really inhabits this Tin Man making him a center of sanity and simple virtue in a world that revels in the surreal and discombobulated.
Both Glinda the Good Witch, played by Shannon Brooke Lashley and the Wicked Witch of the West played by Cessily Evans anchor the production at the poles. Lashley’s work is lilting, warm, and graceful while Evans gets her fangs out and gnaws on the scenery bringing the camp for the adults and genuine, snarling evil for the kiddies. Lashley provides a maternal center of gravity allowing Evans to cackle with resounding glee as she puts the Witch’s dastardly plans into motion.
Donovan Fansler rises to the occasion as The Wizard”. He brings a playfulness and studied befuddlement to the role that makes his interpretation utterly engaging.
Isabella Ellis’ Dorothy is a delight. She handles her big number “Over the Rainbow”, with confidence and elegance. Evan’s performance does not make Dorthy bratty or brash as some takes on the character have done. This young actress allows Dorothy the space and the quiet to carry the audience along with her on this surreal adventure. (That may, in fact, just be taking place in the young girl’s mind.)
Special mention goes to Eva Conyers in her stage debut as Toto. This newcomer to the stage likes to spend her time at home barking at animals on television and is already ready for a good belly rub. Her performance in Twin City’s production of “Wizard” is a master’s class is live animal performance… and she brings the cute for every performance.
Sitting in the audience watching this production reminds the viewer of how important, vital, and in the end life enriching that having neighbors entertain their neighbors truly is. Twin City stage and the other community theater groups such as Theatre Alliance are allowing this community to have fun with one another minus the filter of corporate entertainment conglomerates. With “The Wizard of Oz” Twin City Stage and this company of craftspeople and performers are working overtime to give back to Winston-Salem is the best way possible… by making us smile.
**This reviewer saw Isabella Ellis in the role. Dorothy will also be played by Logan Welborn.
“The Wizard of Oz” is playing through May 1st at Twin City Stage. You can find showtimes and tickets HERE.