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Be Very Afraid, My Pretties 

A dark Oz exists at ImaginOn

At ImaginOn, a Munchkin rabble actually rolls out the Yellow Brick Road. Neither of the fabled witches of Oz takes flight. Even the Wizard makes his final exit via the wings rather than the sky as his two-dimensional balloon lifts off.

No, as the 12-year-old we brought to the current Children's Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz readily told me, special effects at McColl Family Theatre offer no serious threat to MGM. Limited as it is to a mere six-figure budget, cunningly shepherded by director Alan Poindexter, this adaptation of the familiar screen classic still packs plenty of powerful dramatic wallop.

Ask the quaking 5-year-old we also brought to the spectacle. Our Rebecca may not have been blown away by the electronics in the Wizard's inner sanctum, but she had no more success soothing her little brother Liam's terror than the rest of us.

Credit Poindexter's acting exploits as the Wicked Witch of the West for sparking Liam's imagination -- his cross-dressing turn as Miss Gulch isn't a cool sip of sweet tea, either. Aided by Elisheba Ittoop's high-decibel sound design, Jill Bloede's first rants as the Cowardly Lion and Steven Ivey's orotund alliterations as the Wizard also sent some of the teenier anklebiters into a fetal position.

Lighting designer David M. Fillmore and costume designer Courtney Scott also make telling contributions to the fearsome brew. If Margaret Hamilton looked like a skeletal escapee from the dunce corner of a nunnery, Poindexter looks like lurid hellspawn -- two loathsome horns protruding from his scalp and fiery orange tongues scarring his black leather corset.

Some of the best tech is reserved for Dorothy's captivity at the Witch's castle. The image on the big screen of Auntie Em wailing for Dorothy -- dissolving into the Witch's cruel taunts -- comes at us bigger than we've ever seen it at home, and the final melting of the Witch is very slickly done. Too bad it's preceded by the lamest tech in the show: the Witch's fire threatening Scarecrow, simulated by spinning red light, and the water Dorothy uses to douse the flame, a flutter of confetti.

The other powerful element of CT's Wizard -- the human element -- may snap adults' heads back a little. If you saw Caroline Bower back in June and the burning ambition she brought to the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie, you may be ready for the honest intensity of suffering she brings to Dorothy as that mean Miss Gulch takes her Toto. Ditto the intensity of her longing to escape over the rainbow and her longing to return to Kansas once she reaches Oz.

Better than the iconic Judy Garland performance? Perhaps not, but certainly more welcome than the 15th rewind of that celluloid.

There's also a fresh, aching jolt of sadness when Dorothy says goodbye to her Ozzian comrades. No doubt Bloede's bluster as Lion and Ben Mackel's rubber-legged charm as Scarecrow helped to make the parting so sorrowful.

Poindexter is aware of the darkness that saturates this Wizard. So while this stage edition runs 96-plus minutes, compared to the original 101-minute screen version, he injects some useful cheerful notes. We get a natural reprise of "Ding-Dong, the Witch Is Dead" after the climax -- plus a second snip of "Over the Rainbow" in the ensuing dénouement.

A very handsome package, all in all. If you're taking preschoolers, be careful how you prepare them for the experience. A crying room serves as a thoughtful refuge for parents whose offspring have been scared shitless. It's getting a good break-in these days.

YOU DON'T need to wait till after Thanksgiving for a taste of holiday turkey. CPCC Theatre is staging Plaid Tidings, the holiday edition of Forever Plaid, a full month before Halloween!

If you fancy fractured calypso Christmas carols, Tidings may actually convulse your funnybone. In his worst impersonation of Harry Belafonte, an asthmatic Francis leads a sing-along of that 50s hit, "Matilda," who now "take me money and go Christmas shopping."

Last Saturday night at Halton Theater, I must admit that Tidings had miraculously connected with its perfect audience -- Lutheran and Methodist seniors, I'm guessing, able to remember that Matilda originally "run Venezuela." Robbie Jaeger sports the inhaler and plaid bow tie as Francis, bringing the same irrepressible cheer he bestowed earlier this year upon Smokey Joe's Café, Charlotte Squawks, and Horton the Elephant in Seussical. One day, I'm sure he'll land a role in a really good show.

Meanwhile, Plaid fanatics can be assured that their treasured quartet once again builds to a capsulized comedy version of Ed Sullivan's "really big show." Jack Stevenson as Sparky, Ashby Blakely as Jinx, and Jonathan Caudill as Smudge join merrily in the travesty.

CHARLOTTE SYMPHONY launched their new season by hosting glam virtuoso Olga Kern and her second visit to the Queen City this year. Breathtaking -- and I'm not merely referring to her glittering red-on-red gown.

In contrast to Rachmaninov's Theme of Paganini, which she pounded to submission with the National Philharmonic of Russia as her accomplices back in March, Kern caressed Rach's Piano Concerto #2 with genuine artistry. The opening moderato was the real shocker, a straightforward, middle-of-the-road reading that was almost pedestrian until its concluding fireworks. Thankfully, principal hornist Frank Portone was on his best form as la Olga warmed up.

Nor were there any stark Horowitzian eccentricities in the dreamy adagio or allegro finale with its familiar big tune. Kern maintained a strong bass line in the middle movement, letting the right hand melody line flower naturally above with a true Mother Russia tang. The individuality and charisma that Kern held discreetly in reserve burst forth in the allegro -- her second pass at the haunting theme, phrased with finesse, was in some ways even more impressive than the preceding thunder.

Under Alan Yamamoto's baton, the orchestra was nuanced and alert all evening. If Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements sounded tamer and less bellicose than Igor's wartime intent, there was plenty of rhythmic snap and percussive snap in place of the AWOL savagery. Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral was more consonant with Yamamoto's genial temperament, receiving a glowing rendition in its Charlotte premiere.

NOT ENOUGH SPACE remains for me to extol all the sinful virtues of The Rat Pack Is Back, playing at McGlohon Theatre through Oct. 21. The stars should align next week for full disclosure -- plus the fruits of my chat with Pack creator/producer/emcee Sandy Hackett, son of Buddy, who portrays Joey Bishop.

For now, suffice it to say that all three of the singing impersonations are spot-on. Les Lankhorst is a steely Sinatra; Nicholas Brooks is a jazzed-up, quick-to-laugh Sammy Davis Jr.; and Bobby Mayo is an ultra-relaxed and tipsy Dino -- with an Eddie Cantor chaser incongruously on the side. The art deco makeover of McGlohon meshes well with the chic nightclub ambiance.

Be sure to bring your camera. Still photography is encouraged.

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