Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Relive the Magic of The Wizard of Oz

By Matthew Falduto

Photos by Len Struttmann

Daniel Kelchen as The Cowardly Lion, Melissa Tormene as Dorothy,
Jonathan Schmidt as The Tin Man, Michael Range as the Scarecrow
Cedar Rapids - My family watched the movie version of The Wizard of Oz on Easter Sunday this year. My daughters had seen parts of it before, but this was the first time we all sat down and watched it together as a family. The beautiful movie captured my daughters’ imaginations, and for my wife and me, it evoked memories of childhood. One of our family stories is my older brother running and hiding every time the winged monkeys appeared on screen. I imagine many of us have similar stories, for The Wizard of Oz is part our culture, part of our lives, part of who we are. Theatre Cedar Rapids chose to honor that history with their production of the story. Unlike the wildly inventive Alice in Wonderland from last season, this is effectively the movie on stage, with the actors channeling the performances of the movie stars. And they were all simply fantastic.

And now, a brief summary for the one person who has never seen The Wizard of Oz: Kansas-born Dorothy dreams of going to a place over the rainbow to escape her drab life and keep her dog, Toto, safe from the unreasonably mean Elmira Gulch. A tornado transports her to a magical land called Oz, where she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Only the Wizard of Oz can send her home, but before he’ll do that, he demands she defeat the Wicked Witch of the West.

Melissa Tormene is lovely as Dorothy. Her voice absolutely soars when she sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Michael Range as the Scarecrow brings a wonderful physicality to his performance. A fantastic dancer, Range is fun to watch as he careens across stage as the straw filled man. Scene stealer Daniel Kelchen uses his wide eyes to portray all of the Lion’s fear and fun. He is clearly an audience favorite as the woman seated directly in front of me howled at his every wacky expression. Jonathan Schmidt is perfectly suited to the role of the emotional Tin Man. In a bit of gender blind casting, director Leslie Charipar chose David Morton for the role of the Wicked Witch. Morton is perfect in the role, employing an evil cackle that sent my daughter into my arms whenever he appeared on stage.

David Morton as the Wicked
Witch of the West
Some of the real standouts of the show are the Munchkins. Played by elementary school kids, they are simply adorable. Whenever you put a bunch of kids on stage, you have to wonder if anyone but their parents will appreciate their acting… well no worries here. All of these kids were fantastic, expertly duplicating the moves and voices of the movie Munchkins, with which we are so familiar. The entire audience was grinning with delight during their scenes.

I have to mention Sydney Speltz as Nikko, the commander of the winged monkeys. While she doesn't have any lines, she is absolutely captivating with her physical performance. The rest of the winged monkeys, played by the kids who portrayed the Munchkins, were fun to watch, though they were just a little too cute to be really scary.

Costume designer Joni Sackett deserves kudos for creating so many colorful costumes. From the green Osians' duds to the Winkies' military uniforms, the threads add so much to the fairy-tale feel of the show. Set designer Bret Gothe’s set is well done and effective, though the yellow brick road is so subtle, I almost missed it. Excellent use of trapdoors and flown scenery create the magic of the show. Music Director Janelle Lauer gets the most out of her talented singers. The incidental music used at various moments in the show is good too. I especially appreciated hearing "Ease on Down the Road" from The Wiz during intermission.

I strongly encourage you to take your kids to The Wizard of Oz and relive the magic of the classic movie on stage, performed by our friends and neighbors. It’s a lovely story of good triumphing over evil as we learn that there really is no place better than home. The show runs through May 19. Get tickets here.

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