Friday, February 26, 2016

Wizards of winging it

Posted By on Fri, Feb 26, 2016 at 11:20 AM

I’m not sure what the guidelines are on picture-taking at the new Children’s Theatre production of Journey to Oz, written and directed by Christopher Parks. Three or four kids in the audience read the pre-show announcements, and I must confess that I was so focused on how well they managed to talk into the microphones planted on the ears of various adult cast members that I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.
click to enlarge DONNA BISE
  • Donna Bise


Whether or not photos are actually banned, I can report that, at last Saturday afternoon’s performance, there was a photo- and movie-taking orgy as the 75-minute fantasy unfolded. And I can’t say that I heard even one discouraging word from the staffers who were ushering. Children and parents were invited onstage to play a wide assortment of characters from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and even the Mayor of Munchkinland.

And of course, multiple adorable Dorothys paraded down the aisles of the McColl Family Theatre. Considering that the contours of Tom Burch’s scenic design are the book stacks we might find at a public library – not Baum’s Kansas plains or his rainbow realm of Oz – I’d say that the iPhones gleefully chronicling the misadventures of children, husbands and moms onstage added to the giddy mix of make-believe.

Oz erudition isn’t what it once was when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” every year on TV without ever aging. So the kids and parents fetched from the audience are far more likely to wander off script than they would have a couple of decades ago. Cast members eschew the subtle discrimination of asking for volunteers, so shyness and stage fright can also come into play.

Parks has his five-member cast primed for the unexpected, that’s for sure. A kid in the first row was called on to emulate Toto, but he repeatedly emitted a bark that was no louder than a purr. The dad chosen as Mayor couldn’t bother to try a high Munchkin voice or to offer any testimony at Dorothy’s criminal trial at the Witch’s castle.

Cast members didn’t skip over these difficulties, persisting in efforts to get things right, but they never mocked the amateurs. We moved right along at just the right moment.

Opportunities for us to participate helped to sustain our goodwill. When the cyclone touched down in Kansas, we were the wind. When Dorothy landed in Oz, we were the Munchkins who welcomed her. And when the hapless Scarecrow was besieged by crows, we were rallied to be their caws. Perhaps the most magical participatory moment was when we arrived in the Emerald City and a mini-battalion of kids converged upon them from the wings, surreptitiously recruited to portray the Ozians.

Journey to Oz isn’t myopically focused on the foundational Wizard narrative. Over and over, the players insert little vignettes about Baum, newspaper reactions to his books, personal anecdotes and tidbits on his times. It’s a little like an annotated edition. We also get a sense of the breadth of Baum’s Oz series, which Parks deftly keeps unobtrusive. Our only lengthy digression into the greater Oz opus comes when the players point out to us that the adventures invariably begin with a dramatic act-of-God cataclysm. The cyclone of The Wizard gave way to an earthquake to trigger one of the many Oz sequels, then an avalanche, and – weirdest of all – a “hurricane drizzle.”

When we got down to business, the upstage library shelves parted to simulate the prairie and subsequently, our arrivals in Muchkinland and the Emerald City. The bookshelves lining the wings never disappeared, forming the backdrop for the first encounter with the Scarecrow and the witness box for the trial. The Wicked Witch of the West actually entered through a bookcase, framed in appropriately spooky light and smoke, and a few paper-cut props – a beard, a lion’s mane, and Toto – fancifully originated from a large book spread out on a lectern.

The magic is resolutely low–tech here, and the classy costumes by Jennifer Matthews aim in a totally different direction from the last Wizard of Oz produced by Children’s Theatre, when the late Alan Poindexter directed and portrayed a singularly frightful Wicked Witch. This time, the hat worn by Nicia Carla in the same role looks like it was snatched from the Cat in the Hat’s closet.

Carla is spared from extensive emceeing chores, but she does confront a Dorothy or two during the drama, proving quite adept at modulating her menace. Tiffany Bear is vaguely dressed like Dorothy and wields the Toto wicker basket and puppet, but she’s more explicitly Glinda when she’s chaperoning the anklebiter Dorothys onto the stage, a very engaging emcee.

Of the three guys in the cast, Tommy Foster and Dan Brunson pitch in most often on the hosting chores. Chaz Pofahl aligns himself with Carla at the beginning and end of the show, starting out as Uncle Henry opposite her Auntie Em, and ending as her servile Flying Monkey Lawyer at Dorothy’s trial. In between, Pofahl has a nice stint as Scarecrow.

Foster is the most gregarious of the three guys, doing more of the audience interaction and morphing into the Cowardly Lion. Brunson’s fine physical work as the Tin Woodsman steals far more of the show than you usually see. His robotic shtick before and during his therapeutic lube job vies in hilarity with Carla’s melting – under a barrage of confetti water.

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