There’s No Place Like OZ

It wasn’t until we walked into the Ed Mirvish Theatre last night and up along the Yellow Brick Road did the excitement for what I was about to witness hit me. I was suddenly struck with a flash of childhood memories, of old heartfelt songs and all of the magic that creates the wonderful world on the other side of the rainbow that Dorothy discovers in the Wizard of Oz.

Like the children around me, I sat in anxious anticipation for the play to start, wondering how they would possibly be able to pull off the same feeling as the movie, which the program said they were hoping to replicate, using the same MGM script and aesthetic. 

The play opened on a very simple set, a plain farm house where we see Auntie Em (Charlotte Moore) and Uncle Henry (Larry Mannell), along with the farm hands, busily working away. The look was very muted and grey; everything was kind of passive, reproducing the black and white from the beginning of the classic film. 

We are quickly introduced to Dorothy (CBC’s reality show winner Danielle Wade) and her little dog Toto, distraught over their wicked neighbour Miss Gulch, who has threatened to have Toto put down. Distracted by a crisis on the farm, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry don’t have time to listen to her pleas, nor do the farm hands, and Dorothy is left with no other choice but to run away.

Cue Professor Marvel (Cedric Smith from Road to Avonlea you guys! Who is later The Wizard) and the legendary tornado. You can tell a lot of passion and effort went into making this play come to life in an authentic way. Instead of trying to somehow pull off a theatrical wind storm on stage, this production relied on a projected tornado image that played on a thin screen that would drop in front of the performers.

This effect gave the illusion of a full, chaotic tornado that grew more opaque as it did fierce, tossing projected farm items around and finally blocking out the entire stage with a windy disaster so that when things finally calmed down, what appeared in place of Kansas was a whole other world.

The transition from Kansas to Oz was flawless and impressive, the change from the dull grey farm scene to the exuberant Oz was as miraculous as seeing the film change to Technicolor for the first time. The colours of Oz were vibrant and eccentric; the entire scene seemed kind of like a crazy acid trip. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

This is the point where everything begins. We meet Glinda the Good Witch (Robin Evan Willis), the Munchkins and get our first look at the Yellow Brick Road, where Dorothy runs into her soon to be new friends Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), Tin Man (Mike Jackson) and Lion (Lee MacDougall) before taking off to see the Wizard.

The entire cast is strong; I haven’t seen a production in a long time where each and every cast member has a powerful voice and a well defined character that steals the spotlight every time they step up to the stage. McKnight’s raggedy Scarecrow provoked a number of laughs with his faulty memory and lighthearted skip (not to mention completely adorable, I mean, for a Scarecrow. Dorothy, I would miss him the most too!), Jackson’s Tin Man always had a heart, you could tell a lot of it went into his character, and MacDougall’s Lion, of course, was nothing short of a roaring laugh as he strutted around stage in probably the best made lion costume I have ever seen.

Square that off with Wade’s Dorothy, who not only had an amazing voice, but wore those ruby slippers with the same confident wide eyed air of Judy Garland, and you have one fierce foursome. That old Witch never stood a chance.

Speaking of which (witch?), Lisa Horner was devilishly good as the Wicked Witch of the West. She had a cackle that sent shivers down your spine and the fearsome presence you would expect from such a vile creature. The mad-scientist like hair she had going on during the midpoint of the play just added to the entire frenzied aura. And her flying monkey companions may as well have been real monkeys; they looked and moved so gracefully. Every dark, sinister scene with this combination was dramatically delicious.

Musically, all your favourite Wizard of Oz numbers were included and performed without question. The entire production seemed to pull together just as easily as if you were to plop down in front of your television and turn on the classic movie. I couldn’t have asked for a better performance of a perfect play.

The Wizard of Oz runs until January 20 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

Images from official website, photography by Cylla von Tiedemann