The Wizard of Oz – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

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With Christmas trees in the foyer and twinkly decorations on the walls, no one needs wait for Macy’s Santa to herald the beginning of the 2015 holiday season; as far as Phoenix Theatre is concerned, it’s already here.

This weekend saw the opening of the theatre’s sparkling new holiday production of The Wizard of Oz, a version based not on the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway update but the outstanding Royal Shakespeare Company production of ’87.  It’s an adaptation that sticks closely to the beloved 1939 film, differing only with the inclusion of song intros trimmed from the movie, plus the full addition of the frenzied dance sequence, Jitterbug, cut altogether from the MGM musical.

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As far as plot goes, this new production is practically the film we know, scene to scene.  However, unlike some theatrical adaptations that take a movie musical classic and reproduce it on stage with an end result that feels as though it’s doing nothing more than going through the motions – Singin’ In The Rain had that as well as Meet Me In St. Louis – this Wizard of Oz bursts on the Phoenix stage with an unstoppable energy, chockablock with creative ideas and theatrical inventions that engages even before that famous twister hits Kansas.

Like the film, this production has that introductory sepia toned look where the Gale family farm house and the barn intentionally lack color while the depression-era costumes of the perfectly appropriately looking Auntie Em (Christy Welty) and Uncle Henry (Geoffrey Goorin) appear mostly in shades of browns.  Once the scene changes to Munchkinland, those eye-popping colors we expect virtually explode before us as if detonated from a confined container that can’t wait to be released.  Even Dorothy’s blue checked farm girl pinafore dress looks bluer once she and Toto crash land on the Wicked Witch of the East.

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The tornado scene is handled well, presented with a mixture of models, Mike Eddy’s flashing lights and Dave Temby’s thunderous sound, plus the inclusion of billowing smoke. Characters seemingly float by Dorothy’s spinning bed while the wretched Miss Almira Gulch (a deliciously evil Sally Jo Bannow) defies gravity – couldn’t resist – by riding off into the clouds on her bicycle.  Once the house lands with an ear-shattering thomp and peace returns, you may feel every bit as exhausted as the cast.

The Munchkins that emerge from their homes to greet the farm girl from Kansas and her little dog are a delightful mixture of children and adults alike, all pointing Dorothy in the right direction along the unfolding yellow brick road to Oz.

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With an ensemble this large constantly engaged in a never ending series of intricate Cari Smith costume changes, events backstage, one imagines, can only be chaotic, but on stage, director Michael Barnard keeps things disciplined and inventively lively as crows dance with scarecrows, bug-eyed talking trees accompany a singing Tin Man, flying monkeys swoop from above and a faux wizard floats off in a balloon basket before Dorothy has a chance to climb aboard.  It’s like watching the most elaborate looking European holiday pantomime but without the audience participation.  For children, it will appear magical.

Much of the fun is in John Kane’s book adaptation which includes several humorous quips of its own, adding a little extra flavor to what we already know of the show through repeated viewings of the MGM movie.  After Tin Man (Ryan Kleinman) explains how he become what he’s become, Scarecrow (Toby Yatso) remarks as if in passing, “Just wasn’t your day, was it.”  And when the cowardly lion (Robert Kolby Harper having a grand ol’ time) is told to put his best foot forward, he looks down at his paws and exclaims, “Decisions, decisions.”  Rusty Ferracane’s man behind the curtain injects more life and energy in his all-too brief scenes than even the original wizard, Frank Morgan, and while some may consider Toto the cute scene-stealer, it’s Carly Nicole Grossman as Dorothy who truly excels.

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Having watched the Ironwood High School senior develop over the last few years, principally at Spotlight Youth Theatre then with small but significant appearances on both the Phoenix Theatre stage and Arizona Broadway Theatre, playing Dorothy gives Carly a chance to fully display all the promises and potential previously seen but never fully embraced.  Earlier this March, as Eponine in ABT’s Les Miserables, Carly grabbed her opportunity to shine, but here as Dorothy you can safely say that it’s no longer a case of holding her own when performing alongside talented seasoned professionals such as Yatso, Ferracane and Kolby Harper; she surpasses.  Carly holds this epic musical production together; she has never been better, and for an eighteen year-old who many may be seeing on stage for the first time, that’s quite astonishing.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.

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