A Wonderful Wizard of Oz that favors film fans

Kids will be delighted by NWCT's play that so aptly mimics the movie.

Have you heard? there’s a Wizard of Oz production on right now! The Wizard of Oz is playing through Jan 2 at Northwest Children’s Theater.

“Well, that settles it; we’re off to see The Wizard!” you may immediately proclaim. “Never mind the review.” And I say more power to you. Yes, you may be excused. Go!

Ronni Lee is Dorothy, Clara-Liis Hillier is the witch, and there’s even a little dog, too!

Now, then. Those of us you who are still reading probably fall into two types: extreme Dorothy devotees who demand perfection from their Wizard of Oz productions, and people who could give a rip about The Wizard, but are gamely seeking shows to enjoy with their family over the holidays. And both sets of folks are wondering, “Is it good?” Good news: it’s excellent. And in the best sense of the word, it’s “safe,” faithfully recreating all of the major elements from in the 1939 movie version. This show is almost exactly everything you’d expect. The Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Wizard look, sing and talk just like they do in the movie, Dorothy’s eyes and vowels are every bit as round as Judy Garland’s, Toto is a real live terrier, and so on. This show could almost be called The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, On Stage. And that’s ideal for kids.

Why? Anyone who’s hung out with kids will tell you how shockingly particular they can be about their favorite stories. While they generally don’t mind endless repetition of the same tale, they will jump to correct you and may even throw a fit the minute you stop telling a story the same way—in their minds, the “right way.”

Why? Are kids uptight? No, they just love predictability.

But why? 😉

I think it’s because unlike adults, kids spend most of their lives unable to guess what’s going to happen next. Hence, to kids, predictability is a novelty, while novelty is a daily source of stress. Hence, telling a story exactly the way they already know it is a huge relief—a rare occasion where kids can enjoy the adult thrill of making an educated guess and being proven right. So we indulge them over and over in samey storytelling, and they beam! Every moment, they know what’s coming next, and they love it!

One additional note about showing this play to kids is that it’s quite long by their standards: 2 hours and 10 minutes, not including intermission. The good news is that the first act ends in a triumphant chorus, giving a finished feeling, so if for any reason you end up wanting to spirit them away at intermission, they may not even know what they’re missing, and they’ll still go out on a high note. But besides the likely glee of a child, what fresh delights await you at this particular Wizard of Oz? Well, here’s my short list of favorite things:

The Kansas set, hand-painted by John Ellingson in seeming mimickry of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.”

The amazing scale of the Oz set, which folds out suddenly and seamlessly, expanding to almost triple the Kansas set’s size, and (as in the film) posing a drastic contrast from Kansas. One feature of this set (though not my favorite) is the conspicuous use of clustered cardboard boxes painted in pastel shades as texture. Maybe a reference to presents since it’s the holidays?

Young actors coming-of-age—in particular, high school senior Ronni Lee in the lead role of Dorothy, and junior Brendan Long as the Tin Man. Lee is a sparkling, innocent Dorothy; Long is a physically comical and gentlemanly Tin Man. Both sing beautifully, and easily keep pace with seasoned pros Sam Burns (Scarecrow) and Andrés Alcalá (Lion). I don’t know all the shows they’ve been in before, but there’s a sense that in this show, they prove themselves as leads.

A beauty queen good witch! Kari Christensen dons Glinda’s pouffy pinks and tall tiara quite comfortably. After all, she was Miss Oregon 2007.

The oft-omitted “Jitterbug.” Because this song-and-dance number was not in Garland’s 1939 film, audiences (including myself) are prone to forget it ever existed. In a scene where first one, and then a swarm of enchanted jitterbugs attack Dorothy and Friends and dance them to the edge of exhaustion, Olivia Grace Dunn’s (or is it Kate Kelly’s?) sprightly tap solo kicks off a fun flurry of retro footwork.

The Lion’s “If I were king of the forest” number, during which Alcalá overtakes the stage and chomps up the scenery as only a courageous lion can.

Oz’s head henchmen, though young, have great command of the stage. Grace Malloy makes an amusingly officious Gatekeeper of Oz, and Gabe Porath commits completely to portraying the Flying Monkeys’ Captain, flailing and screeching in fine simian form.

The sheer volume of work: A huge ensemble cast, all with elaborate, mostly true-to-the-film costume changes. Even the trees, depicted in this show as maidenly, Christmas-y naiads, all have matching wigs!

Dorothy’s natural hair. As this production spares no detail, Lee’s natural hair is clearly a creative choice that’s been consciously made. And because it stands out as one of very few aesthetic elements that doesn’t replicate the 1939 film, you can bet that kids—with their aforementioned attachment to the original—will notice. Should they remark, they open up a teachable moment. The answer is that different people have different types of hair. Dorothy can be Black. Santa can be Black. And thus, with the wise omission of one wig, we broaden the horizons of the next generation.

All right. So, there’s my scavenger hunt of special features. Keep an eye out for those…as well as lions and tigers and bears!

And after you’ve seen this show, feel free to comment. What stood out to you or your kids?

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NWCT’s The Wizard of Oz continues through January 2. Ticket and schedule information here.

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