Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Wizard of Oz, Carousel Dinner Theatre

(From left: Ben Franklin as Scarecrow, Kelsey Crouch-Pinter as Dorothy, Chad Coudriet as Tin Man, and Brian Michael Hoffman as Lion)

After eight torturous years of the Bush administration’s venal predations (“Oh, Toto, I don’t think we’re in America anymore!”), there is perhaps no better time for a theatrical re-staging of the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.

How apt that Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road buddies are individually seeking for the same things voters across the country are looking for in a new president: a brain, a heart, and something more than the bully-boy “courage” of the current Oval Office occupant. And the Carousel Dinner Theatre is obliging with a production that is visually dazzling and quite captivating from start to finish.

Director Marc Robin and scenic designer Robert A. Kovach have wisely decided to use the vast expanse of the Carousel stage and aisles to mount a production that has an impressive look and feel. But the small, poignant moments have not been trampled in the process and, by the end, you may want to be sure you saved a napkin to dab your eyes when Dot parts company with her companions.

Based on the iconic 1939 movie of L. Frank Baum's book, this staging varies only slightly from the flick that we all watched, enthralled, when we were youngsters (or, perhaps even last week). But by borrowing staging techniques from The Lion King and leaning on some sweetly derivative performances, the Carousel version manages to hit all nostalgic and emotional buttons.

In the keystone role of Dorothy, Kelsey Crouch-Pinter is a bit tall for the role but sings pleasantly, and her evocative acting establishes a strong center for the other players. On a stage that is framed by a proscenium-mounted timeline that illuminates as the play progresses, Dorothy encounters a mob of munchkins played by kids and a Glinda (Mallorie Fletcher) who seems to be channeling Billie Burke’s every vocal mannerism.

Indeed, most of the actors perform their roles as an homage to the film, with Brian Michael Hoffman turning in a respectable Bert Lahr take on the cowardly lion and Chad Coudriet finding even more humorous aspects to the Tin Man than Jack Haley did. And as the Scarecrow, Ben Franklin is marvelously loose-limbed like Ray bolger, in addition to being a tender and touching soul. Although Lisa McMillan as the Wicked Witch doesn’t have Margaret Hamilton’s fearsome cackle--indeed, the casting of Hamilton was a fortunate fluke--McMillan brings her own nastiness to the fore.

Some unexpected laughs erupt thanks to the apple trees that Dorothy and her pals encounter along the way. This orchard is made up of bitchy, drag queen trees (played by Chip Abbott, Joey Abramowicz and Paul Aguirre) wearing bark, carrying apple-bedecked umbrellas, and spewing hilariously snarky comments. Note: If Carousel ever announces a play called The Apple Trees from Oz, buy a ticket immediately. These guys deserve their own show.

Of course, all the great Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg songs are here, and "Over the Rainbow," "We're Off to See the Wizard," and "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" are just as memorable as always.

There is eye candy galore in Dale Dibernardo’s sumptuous costumes, precisely detailed and bursting with color. Especially notable are her jitterbug outfits for the dance number of the same name (a sequence that was cut from the film before release). The kids you bring (um, you are bringing your kids, aren’t you?) will love it when the jazzy bugs appear in the aisles, right by their table.

One of the few effects that doesn’t quite work is the largest: a giant puppet that plays the Wizard’s guard at the castle. Although the arms and legs work well, thanks to the actor operating the contraption underneath, the guard’s face is immobile. And since this is the person who empathetically responds to Dorothy’s tears, he's the guard who cries and decides to bring her to the Wizard, this piece of the story feels shortchanged.

But other than that, this Carousel production gets it all right and winds up reigniting the fun and spirit of this timeless fantasy. Let’s just hope the voters will do as well in November, so we can all “go home again.”

The Wizard of Oz
Through November 1 at the Carousel
Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road,
Akron, 800-362-4100

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