July 24, 2008

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Review: The great outdoors
The Wizard of Oz lands in a Manchester park
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

For some reason, I don’t recall The Wizard of Oz seeming quite so demented.

Yet both the 1939 film and the stage version, which New Thalian is producing for free admission in Veteran’s Park in Manchester for another weekend, can be rather morbid at times. The story opens with a neighbor who wants to kill a little girl’s dog. Then there are those happy Munchkins rejoicing about a dead witch. The story of how the Tin Man came to be made of tin is just messed up. Maybe that was normal for a children’s fantasy in 1900 when the L. Frank Baum book was published.

There was a pretty decent crowd for New Thalian’s show Saturday, July 19, considering thunderstorm warnings and a downpour that afternoon. The mosquito factor wasn’t even bad.

New Thalian took many cues from the movie. Their audition notice had pointed out that they were using the Royal Shakespeare Company script, which is similar to the film’s. It makes sense with something as ingrained as The Wizard of Oz to either reference the much-loved classic movie or make a complete departure as in The Wiz or Wicked.

Alyssa Dumas as Dorothy in particular kept the tribute going by using Judy Garland’s speech style for the character. It was almost uncanny. New Thalian even included an off-stage chorus for those non-verbal melodies in the score.

Clearly, a stage version has to have some differences when it comes to scenery and effects. And those things stood out, particularly considering this was a community production on an outdoor stage.

Once the sun set, the audience could see the full effect of the Oz set, effects and lighting. There was a giant “O” and “Z” back drop, and a kind of cyclorama behind it glowed pink and blue creating a silhouette from the letters and then lighting went green everywhere to signify arrival in the Emerald City.

The “O” was used for visions and the entrance and exit of witches. The circle seemed to be standing in for spheres used in the movie such as the bubble Glinda arrives in and a crystal ball.

When the travelers visit the Wizard, a giant mask with glowing eyeballs is hung on the “O,” “Z.” It glows green and has a mechanical or puppet mouth. New Thalian used fog machines and lighting and sound to complete the scene. Kevin Roberge was the scenic designer.

The first storm scene involved colorguard flags, fog and people dancing in scenery which made for a creative way to switch to Munchkinland when there is no curtain or wings. The sky was dark for the last tornado scene when Dorothy goes home, which made lighting effects really stand out, and the scene overall was impressive.

Special effects even included stage snow for the poppies scene. Costumes were detailed, particularly those of the flying monkeys. Maggie Mahony was the costumer.

The actors all held their own, in particular Jason Crowell as Professor Marvel, Rachel Scott as Auntie Em and Glinda, and Corey Sulzen, Paul Lussier and Allan McPherson as Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Rachel Cerullo had the movement and mannerisms of the Wicked Witch down.

The living apple tree scene was stellar, as was a complex jitterbug dance number. The live orchestra sounded like they were having a good time with the Big Band sound.

For lack of little people, kids play the Munchkins and did a mighty good job. In fact, people sitting on either side of me remarked such while sounding both surprised and impressed. The youngsters actually knew their parts independently. When they came on stage, it seemed like a strong possibility that a bunch of kids would be trying to follow Glinda in a dance, but that wasn’t the case at all. They exuded personality and confidence and knew what they were supposed to be doing.

Throughout the performance, Dorothy is carrying Toto, and the dog in this role behaved like an absolute champ.

The thing about seeing a show outdoors is that the audience doesn’t always sit still. Kids run around. People are not silent. There are always customers at the food truck. (An ice cream truck eventually showed.) A patient dog slept in the audience. There are planes, fireworks, motorcycles and sirens. But the cast didn’t seem daunted.

The Wizard of Oz has two more shows scheduled for Friday, July 25, and Saturday, July 26, at 8 p.m. If you plan to go, head to the park at Elm and Central streets early with your lawn chair to get a spot closer to the stage, particularly if you are nearsighted. New Thalian usually has pre-show entertainment arranged to keep the audience occupied. Perhaps bring rain gear, because it seems to take a lot for New Thalian to postpone a show. If they do, the rain date is Sunday, July 27.

Daniel Barth directs, with MaryEllen Stafford as the assistant director. Henry Kopczynskie was the music director. Jessica Scalese choreographed.


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