Reviewed by George Basler
Tommy Iafrate said he wanted to take a non-traditional approach in his staging of The Wizard of Oz,which opened this past weekend (Nov. 10-11) at Binghamton University.
And the university’s director of musical theater certainly did that. The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow are played by female, instead of male, actors. The Wicked Witch of the West is played by a male actor in drag. The Wizard himself, or should I say herself, is played by a female actor.
And don’t expect a dog. Toto is a folded towel, formed in the shape of an actual canine, that gets repeatedly tossed onto the stage.
Obviously, we’re pretty far over the rainbow here. Still, while the approach may offend purists, the changes and the overall qualify of the production make for a thoroughly entertaining evening. The student cast is spirited and crowd-pleasing, and inventive touches conjured up by Iafrate pump fresh air into the warhorse of a musical.
The BU production is an adaptation that was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England back in 1989. The plot is the same as the 1939 MGM movie, and the classic songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg are intact. BU’s production even restores a number cut from the film before its release (more on that later).
The set design, costumes and props are based on the idea of laundry day, which Iafrate recalled from his childhood days. Quite frankly, the concept went over my head, but Iafrate does a skillful job in moving the characters through their numerous scenes. The show moves smoothly and contains a slew of highlights. Some examples:
• A show-stopping number when Dorothy lands in Munchkin Land after the tornado. Chorus members, complete with comic wigs, manipulate puppets to convey the Munchkins. It’s absolutely fabulous.
• Another sparkling chorus number when the main characters reach The Emerald City. David Wynen’s choreography is lively and fun.
• A dance number, “The Jitterbug,” which was cut from the movie. In the number, Dorothy and her friends are bitten by bugs, sent by The Wicked Witch of the West, forcing them to dance until they drop. Flying Monkeys then carry Dorothy away. The frenetic number, complete with some spooky lighting, is another show stopper. Why it was cut from the 1939 film is a mystery to me. Then again, some of the powers-that-be back then also wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow.” Go figure.
As Dorothy, Christine Skorupa doesn’t try to recreate Judy Garland’s performance as a wide-eyed innocent. Instead she plays the character as a spunky tomboy who almost seems to have a chip on her shoulder.
The interpretation is a bit jarring in opening scenes but grows on you as the musical progresses. Skorupa is especially effective in later scenes when Dorothy realizes how much she misses her home. She also does a first-rate job in performing “Over the Rainbow,” even getting to sing a reprise that is not in the film.
Stephanie Moreno, Marisa Cartusciello and Margaret Leisenheimer give first-rate performances as Dorothy’s companions. Leisenheimer draws laughs galore playing The Cowardly Lion with a New York City accent and attitude. Cartusciello does an audience-pleasing tap dance number as The Tin Man, and Moreno gives an athletic performance of the first order as The Scarecrow.
Taylor Dunn, Stephen Ponesse and Brenda Darcy do capable jobs as Professor Marvel and The Wizard; Uncle Henry and a Guard, and Auntie Em and Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, respectively.
Having Darcy double the roles of Auntie Em and Glinda is an especially nice touch because both are loving protectors of Dorothy, one in the real world and one in the fantasy world. That makes Dorothy’s realization that Auntie Em misses her terribly all the more believable.
A special mention goes to Jordan Hand who is an absolute hoot as The Wicked Witch of the West. His performance is more comic than threatening as the witch tosses off clever asides and cackling vocal mannerisms. It’s a delightfully campy effort.
The BU production has its slow moments. The final confrontation at the witch’s castle is anticlimactic and staged in a pretty pedestrian manner. I seem to remember in the film that The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion mug three guards to get their outfits and sneak into the castle. In the BU production, though, they just show up in the costumes. If there’s an explanation, I missed it.
However, the touching ending when Dorothy leaves Oz and returns to Kansas makes up for this lapse. Overall, The Wizard of Oz is a real treat. It won’t make you forget Judy Garland, but, then, what can? The BU show is a lot of fun on its own terms.
And, yes, it is totally kid-friendly, so it would make an ideal pre-holiday outing. Be forewarned, however; the performance I was at last Saturday was totally sold out. Get tickets in advance.
IF YOU GO: The Wizard of Oz will be performed in the Watters Theater of BU’s Fine Arts Building at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 17-19). Tickets are $18 ($16 for faculty, staff, seniors and alumni; $10 for students and children). Call 777-ARTS (2787) or visit theatre.binghamton.edu