The Wizard of Oz – Berkeley Playhouse, November 14th – December 6th 2009
With standards like, “Over the Rainbow” and “You’re Off to See the Wizard”, The Wizard of Oz is a perfect choice for family-friendly professional theatre. Everyone, from two to hundred, can enjoy this beautiful story of courage and love. It employs children, adults and even a dog (a very cute one). And it’s a great show to get everyone in the community involved. Even better, there’s no marketing; it sells it self. So you would think, that with all of this going for them, Berkeley Playhouse would have a sure-fire hit on their hands. I’m just not sure if they are going to with Jon Tracy’s direction. When re-imagining an iconic classic, you either need to stick to it fiercely or find a successful departure that ultimately works. Unfortunately, Tracy’s direction landed somewhere near the rainbow, but definitely on the more cloudy side.
In Tracy’s “A Word from the Director” he explains that “…Dorothy is a conflicted soul, both dark and light…”. I guess, that explains the white/black unitards all of the chorus (dream) members were wearing. He goes on, “…wrestling with thoughts of injustice that bring out of her great love and a heart-breaking anger. With that in mind, we realize her amazing dream of Oz represents all that is good and bad in her, and that “home” is nothing more than the acceptance of both.” You think, that Tracy’s on to something.
The abstract set, featuring geometric blue and green shapes, gives us no sense of time or place. Naturally, I thought that that Tracy would use lighting, props and costumes to delineate all of the various places that Dorothy dreams up: Muchkinland, yellow brick road, the poppy field, Emerald City and even the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle. But each of the representations were too abstract and bizarre, for the audience, to be remotely accessible. (The Emerald City was by far the best representation of time/place with its Wicked-esque costumes and green lighting.) For the yellow brick road, the “dream” ensemble members pulled out the color-changing orbs (that they use throughout the production) and changed it to yellow and then suddenly Dorothy was on her way to find her way home. Really? Yellow orbs? I can guarantee that the two five-year old boys behind me had no idea what was happening on stage.
Though Natalie Amaya’s (Dorothy) stunning voice and cute charm was fun to watch, her performance was weighted down by the cumbersome laptop backpack she carried the entire evening. Amaya’s version of “Over the Rainbow” instantly had me dreaming that I was in a professional cabaret nightclub in New York City. It was sweet, yet sultry and Phil Gorman’s, the musical director, arrangement of the score gave it a surprised added jazz-“punch”. The entire score, in fact, was arranged by the talented Gorman. But the creative arrangements seemed to a jazz nightclub better than in a musical at Berkeley Playhouse; it didn’t seem to jive with Tracy’s vision either.
Overall, all of Tracy’s visionary thematic elements just didn’t work — from the muchkins’ Venetian facemasks to the color changing glowing orbs to thematically colored costumes and even the quintupled-casted Dream Goddess/Aunt Em/Miss Gulch/Glinda/Wicked Witch. I just don’t think anyone, especially the kids in the audience, understood what was happening. And that’s the true shame. Children should walk away dreaming of far-away magical lands filled with curious friends, wicked witches and magic shoes and unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
This extremely unique version of The Wizard of Oz runs till December 6th, 2009. If you are looking for an experimental night of theatre, than by all means, check this one out. If you are looking for the classic version of The Wizard of Oz than snuggle up to your loved one on the couch and put in the movie.
Listen to the London Cast Recording of “Over the Rainbow”