You'd better be afraid, there's not a more infectious spell in my book
The creators of Young People's Theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz must have a more comprehensive spell book than the Wicked Witch of the West. "The Jitterbug" that she unleashes is indeed virulent, but this production sparkles and beguiles, casts a spell, in a way that is utterly irresistible.
By this point I have seen the classic film innumerable times, a big-budget spectacular, a satirical campy pantomime riff, Wicked twice, two filmed versions of The Wiz and two sequels to the original film. And read a revisionist trilogy as well as Geoff Ryman's brilliant Was. I wasn't sure I needed to see another version of The Wizard of Oz. But as soon as Vanessa Sears applied her golden voice to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the entire audience was hooked.
This production takes as its premise that the adventures in Oz are all Dorothy's dreams. Usually this feels like a cop-out but director Joey Tremblay uses it to his advantage. Everything Oz is from Dorothy's Kansas-bred perspective: characters are formed from familiar objects, the music and choreography are country/folk inflected, and in the few places where special effects are usually wielded, there is clever substitute or a least a wink at the audience.
And this Dorothy must also have watched a lot of stand-up, punchlines are emphasized and everyone plays shamelessly to, but not down to, the audience. This works wonderfully when the Wicked Witch tries to uncover just who dropped the house on her sister and again when the Cowardly Lion asks and audience member if his nose is bleeding after being struck by Dorothy. However it is a little disturbing when the reprise of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" is turned into a clap-a-long, especially considering the malevolently mischevious work Amy Matysio (Repetitive Strain Injury) has put into bringing the Wicket Witch of the West to life.
Matysio mugs, belts the blues (why, oh why, did Margaret Hamilton not get a song? Every current Wicked Witch seems somehow cheated), plays the drums, cackles convincingly, and milks her "I'm melting" death scene for all the comedy, and a bit of the pathos, there is. She may not have been actually terrifying except for the one teenage boy who she approached in the audience: he shrunk back in such sudden fear that the seat he was in should be checked for a possible mop up.
Justin Bott is a delightful Cowardly Lion, riffing on a combination of Bert Lahr and Pee-Wee Herman. Any hearts he didn't steal were captured by Matthew G Brown's Tin Man who has an extraordinary hearty voice and the limber David Coomber (Red, Fortune and Men's Eyes) whose Scarecrow exhibited comic timing that earned laughs far beyond what is in the text. Jamie McRoberts' Glinda tap dances (literally) and, except for a freaky resemblance to Baby Jane, is satirically cloying.
Puppets are used brilliantly for The Wizard and magically for Toto who transforms into Nathan Carroll who is a fuzzball wise beyond his years. Omar Forrest gets the most impressive dance moves as the creepy Jitterbug and Vanessa Sears' Dorothy is innocent, brave and, as mentioned, possesses a gorgeous voice. The entire ensemble juggles roles and of particular joy in what is a seminal gay text, several of the chorus girls were, with no comment, men in skirts. The theme of acceptance of difference and becoming one's true self runs through the production like a yellow brick road.
If you have a kid to introduce to the theatre, do not hesitate - the other wonder of the concept is that it encourages imagination and a sense of "I could do that." I suspect this production will inspire many school plays and raise the level of each of them. And if you feel like being a kid yourself, revisiting Oz is always a dream and this The Wizard of Oz mashes the nostalgia with a contemporary comedic touch that makes it fresh while still the classic dear to our hearts.