By Philip Pearce
PACIFIC REP is offering a blissful end-of-summer family treat at the Outdoor Forest Theater. It’s a brisk, tuneful, attractively mounted production of a family musical you may have heard of called The Wizard of Oz.
Entering the refurbished venue on opening night, I faced a shifting sea of family picnics and almost as many costumes racing through the audience as were about to appear on stage. Sparkly ruby slippers and a lot of multi-colored homemade Munchkin gear raced up and down the aisles. There was even an enthusiastic striped Tigger who didn’t seem to mind having strayed in from a different story book.
Clearly enjoying the jamboree atmosphere, director Stephen Moorer opened the on-stage activity by asking all kids to supervise their obstreperous parents and escort those who misbehaved off into the surrounding forest. Conscious (who wasn’t?) that this is a 77-year-old musical favorite he then begged us to let the stage soloists sing Harold Arlen’s solo tunes and “Yip” Harburg’s solo lyrics as solos, but to feel free to join in any big chorus numbers.
Everyone on both sides of the footlights was obviously revving up for an exciting evening and PacRep gave them all they could have asked for.
Katie Hazdovac was a beguiling pigtailed Dorothy who brought a lump to my throat, right on cue, with “Over the Rainbow.” She went on to offer a clear, perfectly timed and artfully sung performance, from Dorothy’s farmyard struggles with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry (Katie Day and Don Rookaird) to her final discovery that, Oz or no Oz, there’s just no place like home. It wasn’t Hazdovac’s fault that on her arrival in Munchkinland, some too-loud orchestra tape swallowed up “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
In a kind of puzzling plot reversal, she no sooner lands Over the Rainbow than she begins a struggle to return home to Kansas. Heading along the Yellow Brick Road, she is joined of course by three good-guy allies author Frank L. Baum created as metaphors for American agriculture (the Scarecrow), American industry (the Tin Woodman) and American bully-pulpit politics (the Cowardly Lion). Floppy and flexible Mikey Perdue, metallic matinee idol Dale Thompson and plump, hilarious John Bridges echoed their MGM predecessors without losing their own impressive acting, singing and dancing gifts.
Dorothy’s other booster, as if you didn’t know, is Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Connie Erickson stepped out of her pink bubble even more delightfully than she did eighteen years ago and sounded startlingly like Billie Burke as she summoned droves of hidden Munchkins with “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.”
The amazing Betsy Andrade did even more flying than Erickson and threatened to steal the show whenever she zoomed around Oz on her black witch’s broom or pedaled her airborne bike as Toto’s Kansas nemesis, Miss Gulch.
Ken Cusson, as always, was a perfect and appealing befuddled stuffed shirt in the title role. But he was inadvertently involved in another first-night glitch that could use some tweaking. It’s the important moment when Toto and Dorothy unmask the Mighty Oz at work on his phony Wizard special effects inside a crowded cubby hole hidden behind a green curtain. This important climax got lost—at least for me in my third-row seat—by feeble lighting. Almost everyone out front knew what was happening, but, all the same, Cusson’s busy work on his carnival keyboard deserved stronger visual emphasis.
One of the big challenges is the tornado that whisks Dorothy and Toto off to the merry old Land of Oz. Patrick McEvoy’s flexible set units and some skilled actor/stagehand work created a storm as convincing as it was comic, complete with flying livestock and whirling pieces of farm architecture.
The cast, well-drilled right down to the tiniest performers, did justice to Devin Adler’s choreography and looked great in Ziona Goren’s costumes. There are too many to praise by name, but a closing bow to the dark and tousled Petunia Welch, who came in on cue and made all her marks as Toto.
The Wizard plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 3 p.m. through September 25th. If you have kids or used to be one, don’t miss it.