The Wizard of Oz – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center, Phoenix

Remarkable, but true. In 1939, when MGM released the American movie musical The Wizard of Oz, it may have garnered great reviews, six Oscar nominations (it won two) and more publicity than almost any other film in a year considered a landmark for classic Hollywood, but there was just one problem: audiences were small. The film bombed at the box-office, and with no home video or DVD releases at the time to keep its memory alive, it all but disappeared. It wasn’t until 1956 when CBS premiered the film on television and made it an annual event that viewers took notice. In other words, it took seventeen years for The Wizard of Oz to become an overnight sensation.

Today, the movie musical is an icon, a film officially listed in the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. It’s also tops the list of many who consider it one of the greatest, if not, the greatest movie musical of all. Among those is Producing Artistic Director of Valley Youth Theatre, Bobb Cooper. It’s his favorite film. In the liner notes to this year’s VYT production at the Herberger Theater Center, he tells why.

Cooper was among those millions who watched the annual CBS showing. But while many of us saw it as entertainment, he saw it as inspirational. He even wrote a script and directed his own version when he was just ten. With all this in mind, little wonder that the version currently playing at the Herberger is neither one of the many re-imagined revivals available for live theatre, nor the new large-scale musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice adapted from the film; it’s the original, MGM movie version transferred intact from screen to stage, including the Jitterbug sequence, a movie outtake. Knowing what we now know of Bobb Cooper’s passion for those beloved characters of his childhood, you wouldn’t expect it any other way.

After a somewhat shaky start from the orchestra pit during the opening moments of the overture, the show begins as the film begun: in black and white. Technically, the opening of the movie was sepia-toned, but early versions seen on TV came across as black and white, and that’s how most remember it. It’s the Kansas farm of Aunt Em (Tatum Grell) and Uncle Henry (Jack Walton). The scenic designers have produced a colorless painted set that gives the impression of angled-depth. Even the costumes are mostly grays and whites, and it all corresponds with our memories of the film, made all the more effective after Dorothy (Kendra Richards) crash lands in Munchkinland where the stage suddenly becomes ablaze with color in the grand tradition of MGM’s movie technicolor.

Some mic cues were missed, and a careful rein on some recorded dialog needs to be better handled, plus there’s the occasional tendency to have sets and characters stand upstage, which on the Herberger stage gives an impression of characters dwarfed by a lot of open space, particularly as many of the actors themselves are still growing, but once the Munchkins and the Poppies enter, the arena fills. Plus, the use of an extended stage that juts out, circles around the orchestra pit, and becomes a lighted yellow brick road, is hugely effective.

The tornado sequence is done with smoke and a lot of revolving lights, and was only partially successful in creating the illusion of a house in flight until director Cooper added an unexpected element. With the use of a harness, the image of Dorothy holding onto the side of the house while her body was held aloft was one thing, but once the annoying Miss Gulch cycled by in flight from stage left to stage right, then re-entered stage right as the Wicked Witch (Alexis Harris) on her flying broomstick, defying gravity, the cheers and applause were deafening. Just hearing Dorothy moments later say, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” warmed the heart.

The theatrical magic of this undeniably fun and even exciting VYT production is illustrated in the whole Munchinkinland sequence. With color, the exemplary costumes of the Munchkins that echo the look of the film, and the energetic way this youthful supporting cast inject life into their miniature characters (look for The Lullaby League and The Lollipop Guild) plus their rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead, the show has already won you over.

If a youth production of Oz is to be taken seriously in order to be considered more than community theatre and raised to professional level, then casting the right leads is of paramount importance. Asher Sheppard’s Tin Man wins on makeup and appearance alone, but he also manages to convey a sense of heart and vulnerability, and that’s not easy when doing it through the considerable layers of metal makeup he has to endure, plus he has a great speaking voice. Jared Barbee’s Scarecrow is immensely likable the moment we meet him, while Steven Enriquez’s Cowardly Lion nicely captures that vaudeville essence that made the original Lion, Bert Lahr, and his distinct comical vocal delivery so popular.

Kendra Richards’ Dorothy is exactly as you would want; plainspoken and take-charge, looking resplendent in her blue and white gingham dress, the character’s trademark look. And just as you would hope, with a clear, strong projection, her Over The Rainbow stops the show. But there’s something else to the ballad. In addition to the inclusion of the rarely heard introduction, instead of the most famous of Judy Garland songs to be sung as a solo, before Kendra has concluded and makes her exit, the farmhands have entered, one by one behind her, listening to the young girl’s wistful ode for a life elsewhere. Once Dorothy leaves, they proceed to sing their own version, a cappella. It’s an inspirational, haunting sound, so effective and so completely unexpected that you can’t fail to be moved. This additional moment to the classic song (which, incredibly, MGM wanted removed from the film) is a production highlight.

There are also two other memorable leads that make an impression due to director Cooper’s eye for good casting. Tiana Marks, complete with red wig in the tradition of the film’s Good Witch of the South, is a wonderful Glinda. Tiana’s appearance, due to her youthful good looks as she floats down in her own harnessed bubble, makes for an even more eye-catching sorceress than the movie’s original, Billie Burke. Tiana even employs Burke’s unique voice intonation without it sounding piercing, and that’s a considerable achievement.

But it’s Alexis Harris’ principle villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, that yanks the show from under Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. As Miss Gulch, Alexis never quite threatens in the way the meanest woman in town should, the energy and voice projection are missing, but as the Witch with her maniacal laugh and the evil way she revels in the delight of causing Dorothy misery, Alexis becomes the center of the production. You can’t help but take to her every time she enters.

In some regards, director Cooper himself may even be a star of the show. On opening night, walking on stage in front of a sparkling, emerald green curtain before the musical began, ready to deliver his customary welcoming, introductory speech while wearing his shiny, sliver/gray suit that competes with his rock ‘n roll silver/gray, combed back hair, it’s as if Conrad Birdie had made a comeback. The applause he received sounded equally as appreciative as the applause given to the show itself during the final bows. Clearly, producing this musical means a lot to him, and it was a feeling that everyone in the theatre sensed. In later years, when this young cast looks back on its days of youthful theatre, it’s Cooper they’ll thank for their opportunities to perform, and it’s their appearance in this 2017 production of The Wizard of Oz they might remember the most.

Pictures courtesy of Cliff Cesar

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