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Theater wizardry amplifies ‘Oz’

Tom Titus

When L. Frank Baum sat down to create “The Wizard of Oz” a century

ago, he could not have imagined what his simple children’s fantasy

would become.

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Today, just about everyone over the age of 2 is familiar with the

journey of Dorothy and her friends down that well-traveled yellow

brick road.

Which, apparently was one problem when the Laguna Playhouse Youth

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Theater elected to present the stage version of “Wizard” -- everyone

not only knows the show, most kids could cue the actors if they went

up on lines.

Thus, Youth Theater director Joe Lauderdale came up with a concept

that -- while remaining quite close to the Judy Garland movie classic

of more than 60 years ago -- embellishes the story, offers stunning

panoramic scenic backdrops and offers a “new look” at some very

familiar characters.

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The result is a three-hour extravaganza that provides a showcase

for some colorful costumes and inventive choreography, as well as

some interesting character twists.

In Laguna’s production, Dorothy is donned in a brown plaid shirt

and overalls, not the traditional blue and white checkered number

inspired by Garland in the 1939 movie (and worn by at least one

little girl to Sunday’s matinee). The Tin Man’s costume is built

around a large hubcap, and his face is free of the silver paint that

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characterizes the role (and drove Buddy Ebsen from the movie

version).

The most significant departure from tradition, however, is the

Wicked Witch of the West, who appears in a yellow-and-gold get-up and

becomes a comical villainess rather than the shrieking, black-garbed

harridan created by Margaret Hamilton. This, presumably, was done to

avoid scaring the younger audiences, but it’s a choice that never

really works as convincingly as it should.

Ashley Eskew is luminous in the role of Dorothy, blending a rich

vocal style with an excellent interpretation to create a most capable

and lovable heroine. This young actress possesses a superior stage

presence and a natural, convincing performing style.

The witch, in Laguna’s concept, is a benign creature who, in the

hands of Melinda Womack, comes off tentatively in her earlier

appearance as Miss Gulch and less than frightening in her colorful

witch’s garb. If her primary mission is “don’t scare the kiddies,”

she succeeds quite nicely.

More convincing is April Morgan, who doubles as Aunt Em and

Glinda, the good witch of the North. Morgan is especially strong in

her Kansas scenes, riding herd on the three shiftless farm hands who

become Dorothy’s companions on her dreamlike journey.

This trio -- Joel Mijares as the Scarecrow, Jay Skovec as the Tin

Man and Terry Christopher as the Cowardly Lion -- brings the

characters to life quite effectively while contributing much of the

show’s humor.

Mijares excels in his straw-stuffed characterization, Skovec

overcomes his strange costume to bring an abundance of “heart” to the

performance, while Christopher’s Lion is a marvelous blend of

boisterous bluster and terror-stricken reticence.

John Petersen nicely interprets the squeamish gate guard in Oz (he

also does a strong Uncle Henry in Kansas). And Toto appears in two

guises -- a genuine little dog (Simba Lauderdale) in Kansas and in

the energetic form of tiny actress Jayne Gustafson when the action

shifts to Oz. This young actress is thoroughly adorable and capable

of stealing scenes as well as hearts.

The hugely dominant settings of designer Don Gruber are

spectacular in their colorful detail. Dwight Richard Odle’s

elaborately styled costumes (even the tornado is “alive” in the form

of six whirling ballerinas) bring the show to brilliant life. Ellen

Prince’s marvelously smooth choreography and Donna Ruzika’s richly

luminous lighting effects (abetted by Dave Edwards’ superior sound

design) render show-stopping technical embellishment.

Director Lauderdale has called his “Wizard of Oz” the most

ambitious project yet attempted by the Youth Theater, an opinion it

would be difficult to contest. The show is an amalgam of performing

and technical acumen calculated to inspire awe and wonderment from an

audience well versed in “Wizardry.”

* TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.


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