The Wizard of Oz at Greenbelts Arts Center

TheatreBloom rating:

Ordinarily, the day after Thanksgiving consists of folks sitting around the house with still-loosened belts, eating delicious leftovers, perhaps catching up on missed episodes of favorite TV shows, and/or attempting to recover from the tryptophan-induced comas still plaguing them from the night before. But this year – at least for some – things unfolded a little differently. Instead of relaxing in their living rooms, dozens and dozens of people filled the seats at the Greenbelt Arts Center to watch a visually stunning, nearly technically perfect, and just plain wonderful version of the beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz, masterfully directed by Jon Gardner and Daniel Flores (musical direction) and beautifully choreographed by Rikki Howie Lacewell and Elizabeth Gardner.

(L to R) Marie Nearing as The Tin Man, Loraine Hamlett as Dorothy, Sarah Dallas DeFord as Scarecrow, and Stephen P. Yednock as Cowardly Lion
(L to R) Marie Nearing as The Tin Man, Loraine Hamlett as Dorothy, Sarah Dallas DeFord as Scarecrow, and Stephen P. Yednock as Cowardly Lion Jon Gardner

For most people who have grown up in the 20th and 21st centuries, The Wizard of Oz needs no introduction, but – for the sake of argument – let’s assume there are people who have been living under a rock and don’t know the basic story. Dorothy Gale of Kansas is a young girl who – like many tweens – has a lot of frets. But on this particular day, her biggest one is caused by Miss Almira Gulch, the town busybody – and the bane of Ms. Gale’s existence – who has come to Dorothy’s Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm with papers permitting her to take Dorothy’s dog away. Miss Gulch claims that little Toto bites and is therefore a menace to society. Nobody points out the fact that (at least in this part of the play,) Toto is a plush toy, so it’s doubtful he could do much harm, but I digress…. Miss Gulch puts the adorably fuzzy stuffed Yorkie into her bicycle basket and is on her way – until Toto escapes (I think someone else had a hand in that…) and finds his way back to Dorothy. Knowing she hasn’t much time before Miss Gulch (that witch) comes back to try and destroy him, Dorothy quickly packs a few things and runs away with Toto to find a place where there isn’t any trouble. But when the farm is hit with a twister, all hell breaks loose, and she finds herself far from home. Through a series of chance encounters and misadventures, Dorothy travels to Oz and back again – meeting new friends and learning life lessons along the way.

There are so many wonderful details about this production that it’s difficult to know where to start. The set is simple, yet elegant, the acting is great, the singing is superb, the costumes are creative and unique, and the lighting and special effects are fun and yet appropriate for the space. But let’s begin with the human element. Overall, the members of this cast are very talented and give excellent performances. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to mention every cast member individually, especially because – as the program points out – there are 23 in this production! But there were definitely a few who stood out. Loraine Hamlett is very sweet and sincere as Dorothy Gale. She has a lovely singing voice and a wonderfully natural presence on stage.

Marie Nearing (left) as The Tin Man and Stephen P. Yednock (right) as Cowardly Lion
Marie Nearing (left) as The Tin Man and Stephen P. Yednock (right) as Cowardly Lion Jon Gardner

In her performance as the Scarecrow (and Hunk,) Sarah Dallas DeFord owns the term “rubber face.” Her expressions as both Hunk and the Scarecrow are hilarious – and quite reminiscent of Ray Bolger, the original Scarecrow. In fact, all of the actors who play pivotal roles in Dorothy’s journey have extremely expressive faces. For instance, Marie Nearing’s character may be made of tin (The Tinman, of course; aka, Hickory) – but her face is completely animated – sometimes to (pun intended) cartoonish proportions – and her wide-eyed stares are incredibly amusing. This comedic triumvirate is rounded out with Stephen P. Yednock as the Cowardly Lion. Mr. Yednock gives us a Lion that is larger than life, both in presence and in voice – as timid as Bert Lahr’s character in the 1937 classic – and yet, even more endearing –  if that is even possible. But arguably, the scene stealer of the show was Jocelyn Gross, who portrayed little Toto – after the original stuffed dog retired to his dressing room, of course. Ms. Gross’s body language and facial expressions were at times bemused; at times, all-knowing; but most often – blissfully happy – as she wagged her tail and panted excitedly. And she could dance. Who would have thought a dog’s movements could be choreographed?

Rikki Howie Lacewell, that’s who. As usual, Ms. Howie Lacewell manages to make dance look easy – even for a dog. And choreography is only the beginning of the technical accolades The Wizard of Oz deserves. Set-wise, there isn’t one, per se. When you first walk into the theater, it appears to be just a stage with the floor painted white and three panels in the rear of the stage depicting grayish-looking corn fields – with entrances in between the backdrops. But with stage magic (and flying monkeys changing and spinning the backdrops,) the set turns from monochromatic Kansas into colorful Munchkin Land (and Oz, among other places.) The floor looks deceptively unfinished – just a white wash – but there’s a reason for that. It serves as a place to reflect the yellow brick road, which is created by lights covered with yellow patterned gels. Lighting was also used to create a sense of danger whenever the Wicked Witch appears. The back stage area is utilized very well – with creative entrances and exits. Costume designer Susan Neff deserves kudos for her inspirational use of costumes as set pieces and stage business! To tell the truth, there are so many innovative touches like these that make this production shine technically, I could write several more paragraphs, but I don’t want to give out any spoilers. So…

If you want to know more about it, you’ll just have to come and see The Wizard of Oz yourself – and bring your whole family. It’s like the movie you remember, but it will still surprise you. In fact, it will make you feel as if you’re over the rainbow!

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

The Wizard of Oz plays through December 17, 2017 at the Greenbelt Arts Center— 123 Centerway in historic Greenbelt MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 441-8770 or purchase them online.

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