If It Only Had a Heart: "The Wizard of Oz," at the Timber Lake Playhouse through August 6 Print
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 01 August 2006 23:08

I am prepared to ignore and/or forgive the technical glitches that accompanied the opening-night performance of The Wizard of Oz at the Timber Lake Playhouse, and this is no small task, as the glitches in question caused the production, at times, to be borderline embarrassing.

Yes, the monkeys flew, as did the Wicked Witch of the West and a bizarre creature called the Jitterbug, and when the flying effects worked, they were magical. Our first airborne sight, in fact - that of Miss Gulch pedaling her bicycle across the stage - earned a rousing ovation from the audience and deserved it, and the twirling, chirping winged monkeys were sensational; at sporadic moments, this Wizard of Oz was as fanciful and enchanting as you wanted it to be.

So never mind the protracted preambles to the flying effects and the awkward set changes; the audience accepted them with good humor. (After an uncomfortable length of time devoted to strapping Glinda onto her magical bubble and floating her off-stage, there was an empathetic laugh from the crowd when Erin Childs' Dorothy said, "People come and go so quickly here.") We also accepted the effects' lack of polish, as when monkey leader Nikko (Justin Sample) had difficulty making it into the witch's tower and was caught swinging back and forth for a few beats too many; you could feel the audience collectively willing Sample in place, and when he finally got there, the actor handled the landing with such comic panache that the crowd went nuts.

A few goofs were tougher to ignore. Due to improper masking, most of the audience members sitting stage-left - I was one of them - were privy to all of the backstage prep while Glinda and other flying characters were harnessed in place; I'd say a fifth of Oz's patrons were able to witness this. (Our side of the house also missed out on the show's final tableau, as the set-piece for Dorothy's bedroom was positioned so that we weren't aware of Auntie Em's presence until she spoke.) A door on the Emerald City set, which didn't latch when closed, came dangerously close to impaling Dorothy, which was scary enough - when it happened again, most of the audience gasped.

And the production's sound quality was spotty at best. Several body mics snapped, crackled, and popped for minutes on end until, by Act II, all but a few were turned off completely; the resulting imbalance in the vocal dynamics was continually jarring.

But this was opening night; that's when goofs happen. And Timber Lake's Wizard of Oz is enormously ambitious, so I'm prepared to accept these hiccups as problems that were subsequently ironed out by the end of the show's first weekend.

Yet these snafus underline why this Wizard of Oz probably wouldn't have worked even if the effects were pulled off flawlessly - the production is so dependent on its spectacle that everything that's light-hearted and amiable and touching about the material has been eradicated. This Wizard of Oz is out to wow you, not charm you, and in doing so, it comes off as unimaginative, and even cynical. (As if the effects are the reason we like The Wizard of Oz!) Not once did I feel that director Matthew Gunnels cared about the story or, more damagingly, the characters - if he did, why is so much time spent hiding them?

When the visage of Oz first appears in a Laser Floyd kind of effect, it's sort of fun, even if the movements of his mouth don't match the dialogue. (It's like The Wizard of Oz as a Japanese monster movie.) But the effect goes on and on while Dorothy and her companions have their backs to us in near-total darkness, and you realize it's not Oz we should be focusing on but the characters' reactions to Oz, which we're completely deprived of.

Similarly, the Jitterbug scene - normally cut from productions (including the movie) for really good reason - is performed with black-light effects, so we can't see any faces or, incredibly, even feet; the costumes may glow, but the performers sure don't. Over and over, in fact, the musical numbers - and not just the group numbers - are so over-choreographed that even the dancing seems intended as mere distraction, as spectacle, and the actors themselves get lost.

To be honest, much of the time I forgot the performers were there, and when I was aware of their presence, it wasn't always under the happiest of circumstances.

A few hit exactly the right notes - Sean Riley and Ella Mouria Seet, as Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, are especially good, and Ben Mason gives a lively, sincere performance as the Scarecrow; he alone seems fully connected to his role. But it doesn't appear that director Gunnels paid his cast much attention; a few of the show's talented performers - Sarah Dothage as Glinda, Meredith Gifford as the Wicked Witch - merely mimic the film's actors, and several more hit such incredibly odd notes that you're not sure a director was even present.

Didn't Gunnels notice the flippant meanness in Kyle Sandall's delivery when the supposedly benevolent Wizard doles out gifts to Dorothy's pals? ("I'm not a bad man," the character says, "I'm just a bad wizard." No, we think. You're a bad man.) Didn't he notice that poor Christopher Russell, as the Cowardly Lion, was energetically trying on about four different accents and was left to dry in a humorless version of "King of the Forest"? That the mocking tones of the crows (Riley, Sample, and Courtney Crouse) crossed the line into direct mockery of the show? That Tin Man Seth Lieber, despite a funny "Oil can!" intro, pronounced "axe" and "tinsmith" in a way to make the audience wonder if we had stumbled into HBO's Oz by mistake?

And didn't he notice that Erin Childs' Broadway-baby dazzle was overwhelming her role? There's a moment early in the show where Glinda, assuming Dorothy to be a witch, asks the girl if she brought her broom with her, and Dorothy responds, "No, I'm afraid I haven't." But instead of delivering that line with actual concern, as a Dorothy who found herself in this strange new place would, Childs reads it as an ironic punchline ("Gee whiz, stupid me for forgetting my broom when the twister came along..."), and it comes off as a cheap laugh line; this Dorothy oftentimes feels as synthetic as the show's effects.

Childs has dynamic stage energy and a strong voice, and a savvy, show-biz Dorothy like this could work, I guess. But an honest Dorothy would make us believe, and with the spectacle demolishing the simplicity, and effects taking precedence over feeling, belief is exactly what's missing here. I have never seen a cast look so relieved during a curtain call as the Wizard of Oz ensemble did at the end of Thursday night's performance (probably because they were just ecstatic to have gotten through it), and I, for one, shared that relief - after a train wreck, who wouldn't be thrilled to emerge alive?

 

For tickets, call (815) 244-2035.